Turmoil in Mideast adds startling tone to Arabs' summit

Kuwait, Iraq disregard enmity to assail Israel

March 28, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan - Gripped by anti-Israel fever, leaders of the Arab world pushed aside tensions over Iraq yesterday amid strident calls to bolster support for the Palestinians .

By giving the Palestinian cause top billing at a summit of 22 nations, the Arabs undercut American priorities to keep Iraq isolated in the region.

The Bush administration wants to revive its 1991 anti-Iraq coalition in a bid to prevent Saddam Hussein's regime from rebuilding its military and dangerous-weapon capability and posing a new threat to the oil-rich Persian Gulf and Israel. It sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as something that can be "managed" with less direct U.S. involvement than in the past.

Even Kuwait, the tiny oil-rich nation that the United States and its allies rescued from Iraqi invasion and occupation in 1991, also typified the general mood.

Amid behind-the-scenes regional efforts to get Iraq and Kuwait to bury the hatchet, Kuwait's foreign minister, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, didn't mention his country's decade-long grievances against Iraq in a speech to the summit.

But he had a lot to say about America's close ally Israel:

"It has become clear to everyone that Israel is pursuing a new strategy in its daily dealings with the Palestinian people's Intifada by closing off all the areas of the Palestinian Authority and converting them into completely isolated areas, where they can separate each Palestinian area, then commit the most savage forms of extermination, blockade and starvation on its people and the destruction of its infrastructure," he said.

Saddam Hussein responded in kind, in a speech read by his representative to the gathering that some observers said contained gestures of reconciliation toward Kuwait. Instead, he offered to mount a large army to fight the Israelis and ended his speech saying, "May God damn the Jews."

A key member of the U.S.-led 1991 anti-Iraq coalition, Syria, has moved lately to improve relations with Iraq, restoring economic ties.

Last night, its new president, Bashar al Assad, also held a meeting here with Yasser Arafat in a sign that he wants to bury the mutual hostility that existed between the Palestinian leader and Bashar's late father, Hafez Assad.

In his speech to the summit, Assad seemed intent on reclaiming his father's mantle as a pan-Arab leader of anti-Israel forces.

He said Israelis "killed [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin" when he moved too swiftly to grant concessions to the Palestinians, and later voted out Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak for the same reason. He rejected calls from the West to "give [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon a chance."`The Israelis are like the Nazis themselves," he said.

At an earlier summit last fall, shortly after the beginning of the Palestinian uprising, moderate Arab regimes with close ties to the United States, such as Egypt and Jordan, succeeded in preventing strong action against Israel.

Their efforts have been repeated this time. Syria's proposal to reactivate the anti-Israel boycott is not expected to pass.

Israel's Prime Minister Sharon sought to avoid provoking any strong Arab action by instructing the country's army to show restraint just before and during the summit-despite the shooting death of a Jewish baby in the West Bank town of Hebron on Monday.

But after a pair of terrorist bombings in Jerusalem yesterday, Sharon warned that this restraint wouldn't last: "I suggest that you be patient, and you will see what happens."

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