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DUBAI — International civilian flights into Baghdad are turning into a stampede as one Arab country after another announces, or carries out, its intention of joining France and Russia in breaking the 10-year aerial blockade. This may not breach the essence of U.N. sanctions — the restrictions on trade and the external controls on Iraqi finances — but Iraq is not hiding its delighted conviction that it is a key breakthrough in that direction. According to Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who welcomes every new arrival at Saddam International Airport, it marks “the beginning of the collapse of the embargo.” Oil Minister Amer Rashid predicts that “sanctions will be eroded, disintegrated.”

After last week’s pioneering flights from Jordan and Yemen, aircraft from at least five other Arab states — Syria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan — are expected to follow suit, sponsored either by governments or nongovernment organizations. The Iraqi view is widely shared in the Arab world. Arab governments are contending that the flights are “humanitarian” only. They also argue that U.N. resolutions do not formally prohibit commercial passenger flights: That is a “U.S. interpretation,” said one member of the delegation on the Yemeni flight to Baghdad on Friday.

But despite these justifications — mainly designed to rebut U.S. censure — neither Arab officials nor the public make much effort to disguise the belief that, in reality, the flights seriously erode the edifice of “containment” thrown up around the Iraqi regime, and that the ultimate objective is to dismantle it altogether. Kuwait’s al-Watan newspaper voiced a widely held sentiment when it said Thursday that the collapse of sanctions may now be “only a matter of time” and that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s international rehabilitation may become unstoppable unless efforts to overthrow him are stepped up.

It is clearly not for any particular love of Hussein that a large part of the Arab world is now rallying behind the anti-sanctions cause. Hussein’s stock has fallen greatly since, with his invasion of Kuwait, many Palestinians saw in him a great new potential champion of their own cause. Thus, a commentator in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat accepted the standard U.S. view that Hussein himself was largely responsible for his people’s sufferings under sanctions. “But while it may be true,” he added, “that Baghdad is ‘exaggerating or exploiting’ the tragedy, that tragedy must still weigh on humanity’s conscience.” The sanctions have long been reviled in the Arab world, because they inflict pain on fellow-Arabs, are deemed to be deeply unfair, and seen as typical of double standards on the part of a superpower that penalizes Arabs for their misdemeanors and violations of U.N. resolutions, but never Israel. Even such pro-U.S. governments as Jordan and Egypt have been growing increasingly critical of the sanctions.

The United States commands the seemingly solid support of only Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s two most directly threatened Arab neighbors. Both have signaled their strong disapproval of the Baghdad flights, and Kuwaiti MPs have demanded punitive action against the countries responsible.

But elsewhere the flights are widely commended as a simple expression of national dignity, of self-assertion by Arab regimes too long subservient to the U.S. will. Patriotic emotion is mixed up with a sense of shame that it should have been foreigners who led the way. When, last month, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez became the first head of state to visit Baghdad since the Persian Gulf War, a Syrian commentator wrote: “A heartfelt thank you to this proud South American who so bravely disobeyed the arrogant Yankees, and exposed the spinelessness of our hypocritical, subservient, and tyrannical leaders.”

Public opinion clearly does not take the official “humanitarian” pretext seriously. Jordanian columnist Fahd Fanek said that “it is not just 80 passengers that our plane took to Baghdad but 5 million Jordanians and 250 million Arabs.” Reports say that Jordan — despite its close ties to the U.S. — deliberately sought to be the first Arab country to break the aerial embargo. It had the most to gain. Just as, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, King Hussein’s refusal to join the U.S.-led military coalition against him brought him immense public support, so now King Abdullah’s popularity has soared. Reports from Amman say that a strong pro-Iraqi and nationalist mood has taken over, and that this, coupled with disillusionment over the U.S. role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, has reawakened public backing for any move that defies U.S. policy in the region.

What seems to have emboldened such pro-U.S. governments is not merely the prospect of public acclaim, but the realization that the balance of advantage has shifted in favor of Iraq — and any Arab state ready to lend it succor — and against the U.S. The pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, long sympathetic to Iraq, attributed this mainly to the upsurge in world oil prices. “The U.S. hegemon,” it said, “is in a state of paralysis and confusion, appealing to the oil states to cooperate with it, while Iraq has become a vital necessity, possessing cards by which it could redouble the troubles of its enemies.”

Iraq now has more to offer its economically hard-hit neighbors. Its U.N.-sanctioned food-for-oil purchasing power has more than doubled in three years, enabling it to choose the partners it does business with. This is another reason why Jordan rushed to be first. It seems to have decided that cooperation with Baghdad, which furnishes cut-price oil and lucrative business opportunities, is worth more than what is supposed to come its way for boycotting Iraq — U.S. aid, financial backing from oil-rich Gulf countries, or trade with Israel. Likewise, Syria’s bilateral trade with Iraq has risen dramatically since it officially opened its borders with Iraq two years ago.

Arab governments are also increasingly swayed by the view that sanctions are not only becoming morally and popularly unsustainable but wholly unproductive, in terms of either their official U.N. aim — to divest Iraqi of its weapons of mass destruction — or what is seen as their unofficial, U.S. one — to bring down the regime. They note that it is now nearly two years since U.N. arms inspectors have set foot in Iraq; and a U.S. government that till the end of 1998 threatened, and used, force on behalf of the inspection regime now shies away from confrontation. They also note that although the the U.S., through the Iraqi Liberation Act, is formally committed to helping the Iraqi opposition install a “democratic, representative” government in Hussein’s place, in practice it seems deeply unwilling to take the risk of direct, large-scale military involvement, to which such a policy could expose it. The upshot, said a commentator in al-Hayat, is that “it is no longer so much Hussein who is ‘in a box,’ it is the U.S. — in the sense that it simply does not know what to do about him.”

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