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Acting to safeguard Iraq's territorial integrityBy Dina Ezzat
Egypt is again affirming that it is worried about, and opposed to, the division scheme that is looming over Iraq in view of almost daily US-British air strikes against Iraqi defences in the no-fly zones in the north and south of the country.
The division of Iraq, either into three states or in the form of a trilateral federation, would be a blow to the political stability and economic well-being of a major Arab country. Moreover, it would be a blow to an almost decade-long Egyptian diplomatic effort to heal the inter-Arab rift that resulted from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The division would also mean that Egypt, to its east, would not only have Israel to worry about, but also the intentions of the new entities that would have questionable political affiliations and ambiguous military orientations.
"Concern about the division of Iraq does exist, and we must warn against it," said Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. Egypt, Moussa added, is against any such scenarios "whether they are executed legally or by virtue of a fait accompli."
The obvious question, however, is what can Egypt do to prevent this? The constraints on any Egyptian move are too many, answer concerned officials. And it is not only the American position -- to which Egypt has already shown some calculated defiance by voicing criticism of the use of military force against Iraq -- that makes Egypt hesitant about making any major move. Actually, an even greater hurdle in the way of any potential Egyptian effort is the attitude of the Baghdad regime, which continues to issue verbal threats against its Gulf neighbours, refuses to accept the required confidence-building measures and, above all, shrugs off the Egyptian role.
Throughout last month, Iraq issued several threats against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. "Iraq's threats against its neighbours are provocative and annoying to many countries," Moussa said. "Moreover, they are absolutely useless, pointless and damaging."
The heart of the matter, sources say, is that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have no confidence whatsoever in the intentions of the Iraqi regime. Furthermore, sources add, Baghdad "chose to be stubborn" when Egypt "went to great lengths" to persuade Saudi Arabia, and indirectly Kuwait, to accept a formula sympathetic to Iraq at last January's meeting of Arab foreign ministers. At the time, Iraq refused to cooperate with a "contact group" established by the foreign ministers as a forum for considering ways of alleviating the sufferings of the Iraqi people caused by UN-imposed sanctions.
Iraq continues to insist that it will not cooperate with this group unless Baghdad is made a group member. "Of course, the Saudis, for their part, say that they and Iraq cannot be members of the same group, at a time when Baghdad is threatening to use military force against Saudi targets," said an informed source. "So, to allow Iraq in is to lose Saudi Arabia. And with the loss of Saudi Arabia, the group would lose much of its influence."
When Saddam Hussein himself suggests that Iraq would attack US military bases in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the staunchest advocates of Arab unity within Egyptian decision-making circles will have very little, if anything at all, to say or do to allay the apprehensions of the Gulf countries.
Also in February, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Said Al-Sahaf made an Arab tour that did not include Cairo. This was in contrast to the frequent visits he paid to the Egyptian capital last year for consultations and support.
Diplomatic sources described Al-Sahaf's exclusion of Cairo as a "misperception". Curiously, the tour included Damascus, of which Baghdad had been critical in the past for joining Cairo in forging an Arab position that takes into consideration the viewpoints of the Gulf countries and ignores the threats and strikes to which Iraq is subjected.
"I think that the Iraqis misread Egypt's attempts to orchestrate the nucleus of an Arab consensus on the Iraqi question, before the January meeting of Arab foreign ministers, as taking sides with the Gulf states against Iraq; and this is not true at all," said a diplomatic source.
Obviously, the Iraqi regime chose to see the Syrian position in a different light because Syrian-US relations are less warm than Egyptian-US relations. "But nobody can exclude the US from any attempt at resolving the Iraqi crisis," an official said. "The Iraqis themselves know this. What can be of great service to Iraq now is to win Egypt over to its side, so that Egypt can talk more persuasively to the US and the Gulf states."
This might happen, the official added, if Iraq chose to observe the Yemeni-sponsored truce in the war of words between Cairo and Baghdad.
Some political analysts have argued that Egypt, for its own regional interests and not just Iraq's, should be less sensitive about the "misbehaviour" of the Iraqi regime, manifested in Iraqi press and media attacks against Egypt. At stake today, they say, is not the political well-being of Saddam Hussein, but the stability of the eastern part of the Arab world that holds much of the Arabs' economic assets.
For now, officials say that the Egyptian position is not going to move forward. Cairo seems willing to remain committed to opposing greater instability in Iraq, but is not going to extend a helping hand to the Baghdad regime. This is what US Defence Secretary William Cohen is likely to hear when he visits Egypt later this month.
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