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Iraq Adds to Mideast Tensions By Halting Crude Oil Exports

By Michael Slackman

Iraq suspended oil exports on Monday to protest Israeli military actions in the West Bank, a strategic decision that caused the world price of crude to jump and increased pressure on Arab regimes to take action against Israel and the United States.

In a speech beamed by satellite to all corners of the Arab world, Saddam Hussein sought to present himself as the only Arab head of state willing to act on behalf of the Palestinians. His go-it-alone embargo is expected to have a far greater impact on the tense political landscape of the Middle East than on world oil supplies.

The price of oil increased by about $1 to $26.98 a barrel after the Iraqi announcement, but it closed in New York at $26.54, a 33-cent increase. Perhaps a more telling barometer of the decision’s impact came in a statement issued by the radical Islamic group Hamas. It accuses Arab leaders of treason to “Allah and the nation of Islam,” praised the Iraqi gesture and called on other regimes to follow suit.

Throughout the 18-month Palestinian intifada -- including Israel’s current offensive -- Arab regimes have resisted taking any tough measures such as imposing a coordinated oil embargo or opening their borders to allow volunteers to fight alongside the Palestinians. Those steps have been perceived as against their political, social or economic interests.

But as the Israeli operation continues, that calculation is changing. Egypt and Jordan, the only two states to have signed peace treaties with Israel, are under pressure to expel Israeli diplomats and sever all ties with the Jewish state. Both have indicated that they will have to respond to pressure from the street if Israel does not soon relent.