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Fear of war outweighs fear of Saddam for neighbours

On the last stop of a tour of Iraq's neighbors, the Turkish prime minister made his priority clear: to avoid a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2003 13:45 IST

On the last stop of a tour of Iraq's neighbors, the Turkish prime minister made his priority clear: to avoid a US-led war against Iraq.

"The region is united in this," Abdullah Gul said in mid-January after meeting with Iranian officials. "We are together."

It's a diverse collection: bedrock American allies led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Syria with its tense relations with Washington, and the clerics ruling Iran who scorn the United States as the "Great Satan."

All feel uneasy about Saddam Hussein, but fear conflict even more. The general anxiety is about a military showdown whose fallout could make the 1991 Gulf War seem tame in terms of refugees and economic losses.

But each nation also has its own reasons for opposing conflict. Iran and Syria are alarmed about encroaching US military and political influence. Turkey worries about a possible new round of battles with separatist Kurds. Monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Jordan fret about Muslim radicals gaining more ground.

"No one in the region would shed any tears at Saddam's downfall," said Murhaf Jouejati, a researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "But it seems there is some sort of consensus against war. They prefer the status quo: keeping Saddam in a box so he gets weaker but doesn't threaten the neighborhood."

Iran appears to face the toughest quandary. Saddam's demise would be widely cheered. Almost every Iranian town has murals and other tributes to soldiers killed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which claimed an estimated 1 million lives from both sides. But Iran, sandwiched between Iraq in the west and Afghanistan and Pakistan to the west and south, is also feeling claustrophobic.

A pro-American government succeeding Saddam would leave Iran encircled by Washington allies. Iran is on the Bush administration's "axis of evil" radar, and top Iranian officials wonder whether their country could be the next to be threatened.

Washington severed relations with Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which led to a 444-day hostage standoff at the former U.S. Embassy. Now Iran's clerical masters see students demonstrating for reform and suspect a U.S. hand in it.

"It is quite clear that any future Iraqi government would somehow put the Islamic Republic (of Iran) under certain diplomatic pressure," said Iranian political analyst Ahmad Bakhshaysehi Ardestani.

Syria, too, fears being penned in by Washington although it had gradually warmed to the West since the end of the Cold War. Another potential blow to Syria could be financial.

Syria receives a steady flow of smuggled Iraqi oil in violation of U.N. sanctions, allowing it to export more of its own production, said Nadim Shehadi, a regional specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"Cutting this off could be painful," he said. Syria, the only Arab country on the UN Security Council, backed a resolution in November warning Iraq of "serious consequences" if it obstructs UN weapons inspectors. Syria, however, appears strongly opposed to any new proposal authorizing a military strike.

"Syria fully and absolutely rejects any US aggression against Iraq," said Syrian political analyst Haitham Kilani. Even longtime US allies are wary of American objectives. Turkey, a NATO member and one of Washington's most loyal partners in the region, faces a delicate choice: open its bases to US forces as it did in the Gulf War or bow to strong anti-war sentiments at home and issue an unprecedented snub to the Pentagon.

The indecision could reflect a waning influence of the Turkish military, which has dominated affairs since the republic was founded in 1923. Turkey's new government has roots in an Islamic movement that has faced stiff pressure from the armed forces in the past. "We may be seeing an important political shift in Turkey that has been pushed to the forefront by Iraq," said Ted Carpenter, a diplomatic analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington. But Turkish leaders, both military and political, agree on other possible dangers. Chief among them: an escalation by Turkish Kurds fighting for autonomy in southwestern Turkey.

The Kurds are scattered among Turkey, Syria, Iran and the former Soviet Union. Iraq's Kurds have carved out a northern enclave protected by U.S. and British warplanes for more than a decade. Turkey fears any bid to strengthen the Iraqi Kurds' independence could resonate across the border.

A 19-year war between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels has left about 37,000 dead, mostly Kurds.

"There is a belief in the region that the U.S. policy is utterly wrong and will cause more problems than it solves," said Carpenter. Rising Muslim anger unnerves the pro-American royal families bordering Iraq _ in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Two American soldiers were shot and killed in October in Kuwait. The assailants died in return fire.

The same month, a US diplomat was slain in Jordan. Authorities believe the suspect could be in northern Iraq sheltered by a group with possible al-Qaida links. A US military strike without UN sanction is widely seen as a potential rallying point for further extremist violence. "If war is triggered, nobody knows where it will end," said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Only in tiny Kuwait, which was steamrolled by Iraqi invaders in 1990, do officials openly wish for Saddam's violent end. "We hope to see him in the streets of Baghdad dead, his body dragged around," Mussallam al-Barrak, a Kuwaiti parliament member, said at a recent session.