Show of support for Iraq is said to mask Arab split

Diplomats say all fear war but back U.N. inspections

September 06, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - The Arab League warned the Bush administration yesterday against attacking Iraq, but the public display of unanimity masked degrees of opposition to an attack, diplomats said at the end of a two-day gathering of Arab foreign ministers.

The ministers had been expected to call formally on Iraq to admit United Nations weapons inspectors, but a resolution at the end of the meeting, which included Iraq's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, failed to mention inspectors.

In an effort to keep up the appearance of consensus while the Iraqi was present, the closed-door meetings were devoted as much - if not more - to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as to Iraq, diplomats said.

Later, Sabri expressed his gratitude to the group, saying, "We are pleased all Arab countries express total rejection of the aggressive intentions of the United States."

The secretary-general of the league, Amr Moussa, known for his flamboyant language, said at a news conference that American military action against Iraq would "open the gates of hell in the Middle East because you can never tell the results."

Moussa was reflecting what one diplomat called "a genuine concern" that the Bush administration was intent not only on striking against Baghdad but on remaking the map of the Middle East. According to this view, the diplomat said, pro-Israeli American officials believe an attack on Iraq would lead to the capitulation not only of the Iraqis, but of the Palestinians, too.

It was left to Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, who spoke after most of the ministers had left the league's headquarters, to say the members supported the return of the weapons inspectors.

This would be an "an important step" toward showing whether Iraq had violated U.N. resolutions and "was rearming outside the scope of the resolutions of the Security Council," he said.

Underlying the reluctance to deal head-on with the Iraqi situation were the differences among the ministers, participants said. Some represent important regional U.S. allies whose bases are essential for the Bush administration to conduct a war against Baghdad.

Saudi Arabia, whose bases were used as a staging ground in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, has said its soil cannot be used again for an assault on Iraq. The Saudis feel far less threat from Iraq now than they did in 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened the Saudi oil fields, diplomats said.

The historical antipathy of the Saudis toward Hussein has not lessened, but the Saudi government has yet to be convinced that Baghdad possesses weapons of mass destruction, diplomats said.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak warned last week that a war against Iraq would bring chaos to the region. Although there is little affection for Hussein in Egypt's governing circles, Mubarak is reported to be worried about the reaction of ordinary Egyptians to a war.

Of all Washington's Arab allies, economically weak Jordan feels the most exposed by the war plans against Iraq. Jordan has publicly stated that it will not allow the United States to position troops on its territory for an attack.

In contrast, Qatar has allowed the Bush administration to quietly position forces there and extend an air base for possible use as a command post for airstrikes against Iraq.

"Everyone wants the [arms] inspectors in," an Arab diplomat said in Cairo yesterday. The overwhelming message for the Iraqi foreign minister, he said, was that to sustain the public support that Iraq won yesterday, Hussein had to permit the return of U.N. inspectors.

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