Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey are applying pressure on Iraq to avert a U.S. military action. Meeting in Istanbul late on 23 January, foreign ministers from all six countries urged Baghdad to enhance cooperation with international weapons inspectors and strictly comply with UN disarmament demands. In an implicit message to Washington, the envoys also stressed the central role of the UN Security Council in legitimizing any possible war.
Prague, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Egypt and all but one of Iraq's neighbors yesterday urged President Saddam Hussein to increase Baghdad's cooperation with the United Nations to avert possible Washington-led military action.
The plea is contained in a joint declaration adopted in Istanbul by foreign ministers from Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
In a strong-worded statement, the six envoys called upon Saddam Hussein to "demonstrate a more active cooperation" in providing the UN with information about Baghdad's capabilities regarding weapons of mass destruction to convince the international community that his regime does not represent a threat to any third country.
The final document, approved after lengthy negotiations at the experts level, also urged Iraq "to embark on a policy that will unambiguously inspire confidence" to its neighbors and stressed the need for Saddam Hussein's regime to "take firm steps towards national reconciliation."
The Istanbul communique also says the six countries remain committed to preserving Iraq's "territorial integrity and national unity."
Participants, who also included Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, agreed that another six-way meeting would be held in Syria's capital Damascus at a date that remains to be set.
Talking to reporters after the meeting, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said a new conflict, 12 years after the Gulf War, would be disastrous for the region: "We will do our utmost to avert war and to help in a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis because the region cannot tolerate another war."
Countries represented in Istanbul apparently managed to smooth over their disagreements on the final wording of the joint declaration.
Prior to the meeting, Turkish and foreign media reported that Syria and Iran were insisting the conference condemn the United States for escalating tension with Iraq and explicitly caution Washington over any unilateral move against Baghdad. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey reportedly opposed this proposal.
The final statement referred to the United States only implicitly, saying that "war should not become an option" to resolve the Iraqi crisis and that it is up to the UN Security Council to determine whether Iraq complies with its resolutions.
In an apparent gesture toward some Arab participants, Turkey also agreed to have a reference to the Palestinian conflict included in the final declaration.
Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said participants steered clear of making any direct reference to Washington in order "not to dilute the message": "We, therefore, solemnly call on the Iraqi leadership to move irreversibly and sincerely toward assuming their responsibilities in restoring peace and stability in the region."
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, however, specifically mentioned Washington's military buildup in the region, saying countries represented in Istanbul should do their best "to avoid a situation where the U.S. might resort to unilateral action."
Although the six remain divided over their respective attitudes toward the United States, they share similar concerns that military strikes on Iraq might further destabilize the Middle East region.
Addressing a lunch hosted by the Turkish Association of Industrialists and Businessmen (TUSIAD) in Istanbul early on 23 January, Turkey's premier Gul warned that the Iraqi standoff was in a process of "dangerous escalation" and urged Baghdad to do its utmost to avert a conflict: "I want to state clearly that Iraq could make the greatest contribution to peace. The greatest responsibility lays on Iraq. Unfortunately the Iraqi leadership has made mistakes over the past 10 to 15 years, bringing a great deal too much bloodshed and tears."
While stressing Turkey's traditional ties to Washington, Gul carefully alluded to U.S. President George W. Bush's bellicose rhetoric, saying that, to his view, "war must not be anybody's option." He also reiterated his plea for a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis: "We have an obligation to exhaust all possible ways to find a peaceful solution to (this problem)."
Ankara has been under increasing pressure from Washington to authorize the deployment of U.S. troops on its soil with an eye to opening a "northern front" against Baghdad in the event of war.
While Turkish government officials were discussing with Arab and Iranian envoys ways to avert war in Istanbul on 23 January, Turkey's Army Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok was conferring in Ankara with Britain's visiting military chief. No details of the talks were made available.
Admiral Sir Michael Boyce was in the Turkish capital in a bid to obtain from Turkey's new leaders permission to deploy ground troops in the event of war.
On 8 January, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon received a polite rebuke from Turkish leaders, who made it clear that they would not welcome British soldiers other than those already serving the southern Incirlik air base.
Some 40 British and U.S. military aircraft have been stationed at Incirlik for more than a decade to implement one of the two "no-fly" zones imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.
As his U.S. counterpart Richard Myers did earlier this week, Boyce was due to visit Incirlik on 24 January. U.S. General James Jones, who is in charge of the U.S. Army's European Command, was expected to arrive for talks in Turkey at approximately the same time.
Ankara, which has NATO's second largest army, is considered a key U.S. regional ally. Yet, it has been dragging its feet over Washington's demands, citing both economic and security concerns.
Turkey, which shares a border with Iraq, is concerned by the prospect of an independent Kurdistan emerging from a postwar Iraq, saying it might re-ignite separatism in its own mainly Kurdish provinces. It also fears possible consequences for its fragile economy, already reeling from its worst recession in nearly six decades.
In comments reported on 21 January by Turkey's private NTV television channel, the European Commission's envoy in Ankara, Hansjorg Kretschmer, warned that a military operation against Iraq "would have a negative impact on Turkish economy, politics and other fields" and therefore would "slow down the reform process" required for entry into the bloc.
At an enlargement summit held on 12-13 December in Copenhagen, the EU rebuffed Turkey's demand that a date be set for formal entry negotiations to begin. EU officials pledged instead to review Ankara's application in late 2004. Talks could begin the following year if Brussels then decides that Turkey meets all its accession political criteria.
Echoing the comments by EC envoy Kretschmer, the English-language "Turkish Daily News" on 22 January quoted Turkey's top diplomat Yakis as saying Ankara did not believe waging a war on Iraq was a priority of its foreign policy. Yakis said Turkey instead should concentrate on fostering its relations with Brussels and solving the thorny Cyprus issue, which has pitted it against Greece for the past three decades.
Athens, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency and strongly supports Ankara's accession bid, yesterday said all six countries represented at the Istanbul summit had agreed to coordinate steps with the 15-member bloc to avert war on Iraq.
With the noticeable exception of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, most EU leaders strongly oppose military action against Baghdad, or at least any U.S. move that would not be sanctioned by the UN, although they have found it difficult so far to forge a common position.
Germany, one of the fiercest opponents to war, has dispatched its foreign minister to Turkey and other Middle East countries for talks on Iraq. Joschka Fischer met yesterday with Gul, who briefed him on the results of the Istanbul conference.
Fischer, who also held talks in Istanbul with Yakis and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faysal bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud, was expected to meet on 24 January with his Jordanian and Syrian counterparts before flying to Cairo.
Germany will take over from France on 1 February as chairman of the UN Security Council. Backed by Russian and China, both countries this week irked Washington by firmly reiterating their support to a peaceful settlement of the Iraqi standoff and calling on the UN to give its experts additional time to thoroughly assess Iraq's weapons program.
Talking in Berlin on 23 January on behalf of himself and French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted that war be averted: "We believe that everything must be tried to achieve [Iraq's disarmament] through peaceful means. This is the joint position of Germany and France and we will not be dissuaded."
UN chief arms inspector Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammad el-Baradei are due to present the Security Council with a report assessing Iraq's military buildup on 27 January.
The report could be key to any decision on a U.S. attack if Baghdad is found to be in "material breach" of a November 2002 Security Council resolution urging it to cooperate with UN inspectors and disarm.