CAIRO - The Bush administration has assured Arab states that its military campaign against Osama bin Laden and his network in Afghanistan will not escalate to include Iraq or other Arab countries, the Arab League secretary general said yesterday.
The comments by Amr Moussa in an interview with The Boston Globe were made amid concerns across a restive Arab and Muslim world that the United States may broaden its eight-day-old campaign to include Iraq, Syria, or groups the United States has labeled terrorist, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon's Hezbollah, both of which are fighting Israel.
''Some Arab leaders have stressed that they understood that no further attack against any Arab country will take place,'' Moussa said at Arab League headquarters in Cairo. He added: ''This is the message.''
He suggested that among the leaders informed were Egypt and Jordan, two key US allies in the region that remain the only Arab states to endorse the US campaign. He said they were informed by ''sources high enough.''
While US officials have said privately there is no current plan to broaden the attacks to Iraq or elsewhere, Moussa's comments apparently marked a clear public statement that the message had been conveyed to allies in the region. Many of those allies are worried about popular disenchantment with US policies, particularly toward Iraq and the Palestinians.
Jordan's King Abdullah, returning home after a visit to Washington, was reported to have said two weeks ago that he had received such an assurance, but following a US denial the official Jordanian news agency issued a retraction, saying the king had been misquoted.
As recently as last Monday, the United States released a letter to the UN Security Council warning that the fight against terror may require further military actions against other organizations and states.
Whether Iraq will eventually become a target of the US campaign remains a debate within the administration, and if a link is found between bin Laden and the regime of President Saddam Hussein, the likelihood of a military operation would increase dramatically.
But Moussa said he did not believe there was any connection between the two. And if an attack occurred, he warned, popular anger in the region would probably explode, and the US-led coalition supporting the campaign would fall apart.
''We are not in 1990,'' he said, referring to the year when Iraq invaded Kuwait and Egypt and Syria offered soldiers to a US-led coalition that drove Iraqi forces out.
''Attacking any Arab country would result in a breakdown of the general coalition, the general operation, and the general consensus, which is very much needed under the present circumstances,'' he said.
Moussa, who took over in May as head of the 22-member Arab League after serving as Egypt's foreign minister, had refrained from publicly supporting the attack, but in the interview, he signaled the league's backing for the US strikes. The league, he said, considered it ''a surgical operation against bin Laden.''
''We understand what the US is doing and we understand the reasons why they are doing so,'' Moussa said. He added: ''We understand that the Americans are very angry about what happened and they are responding to what happened to them. And this is something between them and those who perpetrated the attack.''
The statements were among the strongest made by an Arab diplomat in support of the strikes and offered a vivid contrast to a proposal Moussa made last week to send a delegation to Washington to lobby for a suspension of the bombing. The initiative, offered at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Doha, Qatar, went nowhere, though the conference stopped short of endorsing the US campaign.
Of Arab leaders, only Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has voiced unconditional support of the US bombing.
Moussa, a veteran of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the 1990s, when Egypt served as a mediator, said the US administration had new urgency in resolving the conflict and was aware of its impact on the region - sentiments that he described as amounting to ''unprecedented agitation.'' He said several Arab leaders had stressed the urgency of a diplomatic breakthrough to Bush.
Some Arab analysts have suggested that declarations of support for Palestinian statehood by Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain were designed to calm Arab anger that has flared during the Palestinian uprising, which began last September. Moussa said he believed the administration was sincere, but still urged action.
''If some think - `Let us dupe the Arabs and just soothe them until we finish with this, you can never tell what will happen' - It will be double the anger of today.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Co