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Experts: Iraq Oil Export Halt Aimed At Arab Ties - 2002-04-08

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced Monday that he was halting oil exports to protest Israel's military offensive in the Palestinian territories. Iraq has been exporting about two million barrels of oil a day, or about four percent of the world's supplies.

In a nationally televised speech, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said he was stopping oil exports, beginning immediately, for 30 days, or until Israel withdraws from Palestinian-controlled territories. Israel launched the military operation in the West Bank two weeks ago in response to a series of deadly suicide bombings against Israelis.

Iraq has been calling on other Arab countries to cut oil supplies in order to pressure the United States to force Israel to end its military action. Other leading oil producers, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have rejected the use of oil as a weapon.

The last time oil producing Arab states used oil as a political weapon was in 1973. Reduced exports caused a global energy crisis. Today, most of the industrialized world has built up huge oil reserves to protect against any disruption of supply.

Analysts in Cairo say they see Iraq's move as an attempt by Saddam Hussein to curry favor in the Arab world, where there is growing discontent with Arab governments' failure to more actively to support the Palestinians. The United States also has been seeking support in the Arab world for possible military action against Iraq.

Fahmy Howeidi, a political analyst for Egypt's al Ahram newspaper, has this to say about Saddam Hussein. "I don't take his attitudes toward the Palestinians seriously, because we have never seen him as an Arabic fighter for the Palestinian cause. Probably, he needs some popularity in the Arab world as the man who could do such steps, which others could not do, could not dare to do," Mr.Howeidi said.

Abdullah el Ashaal is a professor of international law and expert on Arab affairs who lectures at several universities in Cairo. He also says Saddam Hussein's motivation has little to do with the Palestinian cause. "It seems to me, President Saddam Hussein is trying to affect the prices of the oil. This decision has nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians. So, he is working outside the scope of the problem in the Middle East," Abdullah el Ashaal said.

Analysts say Iraq itself is likely to suffer most from the halt in oil sales, because of lost revenues. Iraq, which is under U.N. sanctions, is allowed to sell oil to buy food and humanitarian supplies under the so-called "oil-for-food" program.