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Iraq: Postponement Of Mission To Baghdad May Be End Of Arab Peace Efforts

  • Charles Recknagel

The postponement of a mission by Arab foreign ministers to Baghdad this week may spell the end of Arab efforts to avert a U.S.-led war on Iraq. The postponement -- reported to be at Iraq's request -- caps a series of fruitless attempts by Arab governments to find a single voice in the crisis.

Kuwait City, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Arab League has postponed indefinitely its plans to send a delegation to Iraq for what would have been a last-minute effort to avert a U.S.-led attack.

Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Muhammad bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, announced yesterday that the delegation had put off the trip at Baghdad's request. The delegation, formed after an Arab summit early this month, was to have convened in Bahrain yesterday before proceeding to Baghdad over the weekend.

Egyptian state television reports that Baghdad remains in talks with the Arab League, headquartered in Cairo, to set a new date. But no time frame has been mentioned.

The postponement of the delegation's visit just days before a possible war with Iraq may spell the end of on-again, off-again efforts by Arab governments to find a unified voice in the Iraq crisis. The efforts have seen deep splits between states that are assisting the U.S. military buildup in the region and others that sharply criticize U.S. policy.

Some observers say Iraq may have decided to indefinitely postpone the delegation's visit because there was no likelihood it would have conclusive results. Baghdad has called on the Arab League to issue strong condemnations of Washington and those Arab states which are providing U.S. and British forces with facilities.

Ayed S. R. Manna is a political analyst and a member of the Kuwait Journalists' Association in Kuwait City. He says Baghdad now appears to have given up hopes of the Arab League taking any such steps due to its internal divisions.

"The Iraqis think it is useless to have an Arab delegation," Manna says. "This Arab delegation will not offer Iraq any protection against an American attack. If there is a kind of condemnation for those who gave facilities to the Americans, this will lead to the breaking of the Arab League because Kuwait -- Kuwait and the other [Gulf] countries -- will not accept such a condemnation."

The Arab League's troubles in finding a unified position reflect deep-seated differences in the 22 member governments' stakes in the Iraq crisis.

Efforts saw an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo last month end in disarray as Gulf states accused Lebanon and Syria of unilaterally issuing a summit statement calling on all Arab states to deny aid to U.S. forces.

Many of the Gulf states subsequently endorsed a proposal by the United Arab Emirates for the Arab League to formally call upon Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to go into voluntary exile. But the Arab League refused to take up that proposal at a heads-of-state summit in Sharm Al-Shaykh, Egypt, early this month, saying its charter prevents Arab states from interfering in each other's internal affairs. That summit ended, instead, with a statement calling only for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis.

The Gulf states are widely considered to have chosen to help Washington because they place paramount value on their long-standing security ties with the United States.

Kuwait, whose occupation by Baghdad in 1990 sparked the 1991 Gulf War, is now the base of some 250,000 U.S. and British troops prepared to invade Iraq. Qatar hosts the U.S. military command headquarters for the likely war and Bahrain is home to the regional U.S. fleet. Saudi Arabia is reported to be ready to let U.S. forces use its air bases for operations, but has not publicly said it will do so.

Manna says that the Gulf states' position may have roots in their recent history as British protectorates. Many of them -- apart from Saudi Arabia -- became independent only in the late 1900s. Since then, they have depended upon the West to protect them from the region's two military superpowers, Iraq and Iran.

The Gulf states "have their own relations with the West," he says. "They have been under the British for a long period of time and after their independence -- which for some of them is actually not that far away, in the 1970s -- they established a very warm relation with the West and especially with the United States."

He continues, "And that is why -- [although] sometimes they oppose the American policies or they are not satisfied with the West's attitudes toward the Arab world -- they cannot go far away from the United States and the West. Because they need it. They feel that they are threatened either by Iran or by Iraq and they want a kind of protection."

By contrast, long-standing bad relations between Syria and Washington have only worsened over the Iraq crisis. Lebanon and Syria, with Damascus an influential power, have been the most outspoken Arab states, apart from Iraq itself, against any war.

Manna says Syria's opposition comes in part from fears that any U.S. success against Baghdad could embolden it to take a tougher line toward Damascus, which Washington regards as a state sponsor of terrorism.

But the analyst also says Syria may have its own domestic reasons not to welcome the toppling of the Ba'ath regime in Baghdad. The only other ruling Ba'ath party in the Arab world is in Syria and, while the two governments have often had hostile relations, the parties share the same ideological roots. Both are secular Arab nationalist movements which rose to power through military coups and maintain their rule by force.

"It seems that the Syrians feel a U.S. attack on Iraq is unjustifiable probably because they are the same party. The Syrians know that if a democratic Iraq exists, the Syrian intellectuals, the Syrian opposition, will demand a similar treatment in their own country."

The United States is reported to be planning to administer Iraq for some 18 months following any invasion in an effort to encourage development of a more democratic system of government. Some observers have said the authoritarian Gulf monarchies, too, may fear domestic repercussions from having a more democratic state next door.

As the Arab governments now appear to have abandoned attempts to find an 11th-hour solution to the Iraq crisis, popular Arab sentiment remains strongly opposed to any U.S. attack. Recent weeks have seen some 200,000 antiwar protesters gathered in Cairo's largest stadium. Some smaller rallies have taken place in other capitals. Arab governments are reported to be keeping tight controls on rallies out of fear the street protests could spark wider unrest.

Columnists in many Arabic-language newspapers regularly label any U.S. attack on Iraq an effort to weaken the Arab world and increase Israel's security. They also accuse Washington of seeking to control Iraq's oil wealth. Washington denies those charges.