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Iraq: Public Rift Deepens Among Arab States Over Possible War

  • Ron Synovitz

A public rift among Arab states is deepening over what should be done about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Persian Gulf monarchies with U.S. and British troops on their territory have been rallying behind a call by the United Arab Emirates for Saddam to go into exile. But the initiative has been rejected by Arab states outside of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.

Kuwait City, 4 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) proposed at the 1 March Arab League summit in Egypt that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein step down, the idea was not even discussed by leaders of the other countries in the Arab League.

Saddam has said in the past that he would rather die than go into exile. And Baghdad has responded angrily to the U.A.E. initiative, rejecting it out of hand.

But the U.A.E. initiative -- the first public call by an Arab state for Saddam's abdication -- has been gaining momentum since the weekend with growing support from the Gulf Arab states now hosting U.S. and British troops. The issue is expected to come to a head tomorrow in Doha when Qatar hosts a summit of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference.

On 2 March, both the Kuwaiti government and Bahrain's king, Shaykh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, backed the call for Saddam to go into exile. Shaykh Hamad said the proposal is the only way for the Arab world to protect the Iraqi people and spare the entire region from the threat of war.

The Kuwaiti government says the U.A.E. initiative is aimed at protecting the unity of Iraq as well as its people and their property. Kuwait's council of ministers also argues that Saddam's abdication will prevent destabilization across the Persian Gulf region.

At Kuwait's request, the U.A.E. initiative was put on the agenda of yesterday's meeting in Doha between European Union officials and the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC, primarily an economic grouping, includes the six Gulf Arab states of Kuwait, Bahrain, the U.A.E., Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Qatari Foreign Minister Shaykh Hamad bin Jassen al-Thani, said after yesterday's talks the GCC strongly supports the U.A.E.'s call for Saddam to step down. "It's a very important initiative and we think it needs to be discussed further in the Arab League and this is what we left in our communique," al-Thani said.

The Qatari foreign minister emphasized that there has not been a collective GCC decision about the U.A.E. proposal. But he praised the plan as one that would allow the Iraqi regime to decide its own fate without foreign interference.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa initially rejected the U.A.E. proposal on the grounds that it interferes with Iraq's domestic affairs.

Musa said the resolution of what he called "the Iraqi problem" should come through peaceful means -- including "continuous Iraqi compliance" with UN Security Council Resolution 1441. Since making that statement, Musa has been meeting privately with officials from Bahrain on the issue of Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.A.E. Foreign Minister Rashid Abdullah al-Nu'aymi is denying Musa's charge that the initiative interferes in Iraqi affairs. Al-Nu'aymi also played down Iraq's angry response to the demand, saying Baghdad has not read the initiative correctly.

Al-Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, says without Saddam's abdication, there is little hope to avoid a U.S.-led war. Al-Thani also is rejecting criticism by other Arab states about GCC countries now hosting a total of some 200,000 U.S. and British troops. "I don't think any war [will bring] benefits for this region. I think the war [will bring destruction] for this region. We know that and we know that any military action to be taken will have an effect on the region, especially in the GCC. For that reason we are trying to work hard to try to get Iraq to comply with United Nations resolutions and try to solve it peacefully," al-Thani said.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, told journalists after yesterday's Doha gathering that Arab states are not the only countries divided over what to do about Saddam Hussein's regime. "There may be differences of approaches, whether it's in the EU or in the [UN] Security Council, and we do not hide these different approaches. But there is unanimity. There is unanimity in the European Union and there is unanimity in the Security Council on [Resolution] 1441 [and its call for Saddam to dismantle his programs for developing weapons of mass destruction]. This is a very clear message to Saddam Hussein, and heeding this message is the best way to avoid a war," Papandreou said.

Papandreou told the GCC foreign ministers the EU's common position is that all diplomatic measures must first be exhausted -- and that military force against Iraq is a last resort. "There is still a window of opportunity if Saddam Hussein is to make a dramatic move on the issue of compliance [with UN resolutions] and particularly on disarmament," he said.

Although Saudi Arabia has hosted thousands of U.S. troops since the 1991 Gulf War, the presence of American soldiers there is unpopular among ordinary citizens and has become a point of contention between Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

As a result, analysts say Saudi Arabia is trying to appease both domestic and foreign Arab opposition to a U.S.-led war on Iraq by refusing to allow an attack to be launched from its territory.

Daniel Neep, a regional expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says the U.A.E. initiative is unlikely to have much impact. But he said the gathering momentum behind the plan within the GCC is significant.

Neep told RFE/RL the issue shows that smaller Gulf Arab states are playing a more pro-active role in diplomacy and are willing to adopt foreign policy positions more independently from Saudi Arabia than they had been 10 years ago. "The political environment has now very much changed and Saudi Arabia is having to keep itself very much more to itself," Neep said. Saudi Arabian influence "isn't quite as strong as it was, while the smaller Gulf States also have more -- partly because of their increasing support for the U.S. and the ties that they have. They have the ability to make more independent policy decisions. So I think you have to see it in that light as well, the changing environment which is giving these smaller states more leeway politically, in foreign policy terms."

A Saudi diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his country will not take part in tomorrow's Organization of the Islamic Conference summit. The diplomat said that last weekend's Arab League summit at Sharm Al-Shaykh was enough to show that there will not be broad support in the Arab world for Saddam Hussein to step down.