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Lebanon Officially Opposes US-Led Strike Against Iraq

Lebanon is officially opposed to an American-led strike against Iraq for the purpose of changing the government. But Saddam Hussein's continuing rule is causing Lebanon and other countries in the region economic hardship and some businessmen, and government officials say privately they would like to see Saddam Hussein replaced.

Prior to the Gulf war in 1991, Iraq was Lebanon's number one trading partner. Under U.N. sanctions imposed in 1990 Lebanon has lost as much as 90 percent of its trade with Baghdad.

Lebanon has become an economic victim of the Gulf war according to former Lebanese Foreign Minister Farez Bouez, who is now a member of the Lebanese parliament.

"Before the war, nearly 30 percent of the transit movements through the Beirut harbor was going to Iraq. Before the war, nearly 20 percent of our industrial exportation was going to Iraq. Before the war, let us say, the exchanges with Iraq was representing nearly an average of 15 percent of the Lebanese economy - between the banking movements, between the industrial exportations, agricultural exportations also, and the transit through the Lebanese harbors," he said. "That's why I would say Lebanon is the first victim, economical victim, of the Iraqi crisis."

Hardest hit have been many of Lebanon's top industries. The suppliers of farm, manufacturing and power equipment have seen their profits all but evaporate. U.N. sanctions, according to one Lebanese government official, who asked not to be identified, have cost Lebanon several billion dollars in potential trade with Iraq.

Several Lebanese manufacturers told VOA they fear the Iraqi market will remain off limits as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power.

Even so, the Lebanese Industrialists Association is officially opposed to a U.S.-led military strike against Iraq. Instead, the association supports a lifting of the U.N. sanctions, according to its vice president, Wajih Bizri.

"The Iraqi market was and has been in history one of the major markets for Lebanon," he said. "The sanctions affected, drastically, the business in Iraq."

"Behind closed doors," according to Sami Baroudi, who heads the political science department at Lebanon American University, industrialists are pressuring Lebanese government officials to "do whatever is necessary to reopen the Iraqi market."

"There is some pressure on the government from industrialists to really normalize relations with Iraq as a prelude to resuming normal commercial business with Iraq and certainly that market offers outlets for several Lebanese products," he said.

Lebanese government sources told VOA normalizing relations with Iraq will likely require a new government in Baghdad. In fact, a top government official, who asked not to be identified, said "Saddam Hussein must go." The official went on to suggest many Arab leaders share the same sentiment but do not welcome the prospect of military action while the region is still trying to recover from the effects of the Gulf war.

Privately, many Lebanese industrialists, including some who have been locked out of the Iraqi market because of the sanctions, say Lebanon would be "far better off without Saddam Hussein."

However, one industrialist, who asked not to be identified, has been able to sell electric generators to Iraq under U.N.-sanctioned guidelines. He says Iraqi business has brought him $25 million over the past three years but he says he could have made much more if the sanctions had never been imposed.

Even so, while he says he is no fan of Saddam Hussein and believes the sanctions would be lifted if the Iraqi leader were to be ousted, he says he fears there would be a period of political instability in Iraq that could harm his business.

He says if the political environment in Iraq is uncertain, there would be no guarantee a new government would continue buying the generators his company manufactures.

Lebanese government sources said the issue of Iraq has put the entire region on a "political and economic tightrope." One top government official, asking not to be identified, said the presence of Saddam Hussein is causing "a certain measure of economic paralysis throughout the Arab world."