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Israel, Arab nations worry about war’s aftermath

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As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits Israel and four Arab countries to discuss American military strikes against Iraq, the major fear isn't the attack itself.

It's what might happen afterward.In Israel, there is concern Iraq might retaliate with Scud missiles, possibly containing biological or chemical warheads.

For Arab leaders, the aftermath of a U.S. attack brings different trouble: a likely surge of anti-American fervor that could destabilize their regimes and damage American interests in the Middle East. There also are questions about whether two key U.S. allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, would allow their air bases to be used for attacks against Iraq.

The current crisis arose after Iraq refused to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to enter several sites, including presidential palaces. Richard Butler, head of the United Nations weapons-inspection commission, said his team has evidence that Iraq has loaded biological weapons onto mis-sile warheads.

In a comment that immediately caused ripples in Israel, the New York Times quoted Butler as saying Iraq had enough biological material to "blow away Tel Aviv." Later, the newspaper said Butler actually said Saddam could "blow away Tel Aviv or wherever."

Iraq has denied it has biological or chemical weapons and said Butler's comments were meant to further incite tension.

The comments did cause a small run on gas masks in Israel, notably in Tel Aviv. "People are very anxious indeed," said Shlomo Maslawi, whose neighborhood was hit twice by Scuds in 1991.

Members of Israel's parliament also had an anxious moment when it was discovered the chamber's gas masks were all gone for regular maintenance. Hours later, the gas masks reappeared. This weekend, Albright will ask the Israelis not to retaliate if Iraq fires convention warheads, but one diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said, "It's understood this time if they drop a Scud in Israel, the Israelis might fire back."

If Iraq were to launch nonconventional weaponry, the response would be cataclysmic, the diplomat said. "Baghdad would be wiped off the face of the Earth."

Clinton administration officials have warned they are seriously considering bombing Iraq soon if diplomatic initiatives fail to allow inspections. But just seven years after almost the entire Arab world joined an American-led coalition to force Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait, the Iraqi president now has a majority of Arab public opinion on his side.

"The Americans did not play the game the right way: You can't go and do a strike against someone unless you prepare the ground for it," said Abdulrahman al-Rashed, editor of the Saudi-owned Al-Majalla Magazine in London.

"The Iraqi propaganda has been unchallenged for years now. They are showing pictures of dead kids in the street, appealing on emotional grounds, and everyone in the region is asking why the Iraqi people have to be punished."

Albright is aware of such sentiment in the region but has made clear the United States is prepared to act alone if necessary.

Albright plans to meet with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, all places with U.S. military installations, weaponry and troops.

There have been few official statements prior to Albright's trip to the region, but the press has been full of commentaries and speculation.

Yet only Kuwaiti newspapers seem to back a military strike.

"Kuwaitis slap us on the back every time we whale on the Iraqis," said a U.S. diplomat in the Arab world - but they are con-spicuously alone. In Bahrain, commentators in government news-papers strongly oppose a military strike, while Saudi editorial writers say it is up to Saddam to avoid a confrontation.

From Morocco to Iran, a common refrain is the Americans play a dangerous game of double standards: coming down hard on Iraq for U.N. violations but not pressuring Israel to comply with U.N. resolutions demanding it return land seized in wars with Arab states.

Another often-heard line: Saddam, scurrilous as he is seen among Arabs, is no longer the region's top villain. He has been dethroned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, if the United States moves against Iraq, it may have to do so from two aircraft carriers currently in the gulf. There are concerns Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where the United States has military aircraft, may not allow their airfields to serve as launching pads for new attacks on Iraq.

Saudi Arabia has serious concerns about repercussions of a U.S. attack against Iraq. In 1995 and 1996, 26 American servicemen were killed there in two separate bombings.

"There has become a bit of a growing nasty attitude" toward American military involvement in the region, said al-Rashed, the Saudi magazine editor. "People tend to judge the Saudi ruling family, and other Arab governments, on a single issue," he said.

"Since America has a bad name, you become a bad regime if you help it. You become not an independent government in your own country but just a button pushed by Washington when needed."

Turkey's concerns are more economic. It has been badly hurt by the embargo imposed on Iraq following the gulf war. Iraq ships its oil through Turkey and Jordan.

Said Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Koc University in Istanbul: "Inevitably this trade will be interrupted. And while not liking it, Turkey will not respond strongly to American actions, which puts Turkey in an even more isolated position vis a vis Arab states."

In Jordan, Iraq's neighbor, there are social and economic concerns. Jordan is providing a haven for tens of thousands of Iraqi exiles and for even more Palestinians who applauded Saddam's attacks on Israel in 1991.

"There isn't much difference between the feelings on the street and in the palace," said political commentator Rami Khouri. "After seven years of this situation, the people feel the American response of using force is as ineffective as it always has been."

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak seems sidelined in this latest standoff, said political theorist Mohammed Sid Ahmed.