Arab world's bitter divide on Iraq flares

Suggestion that Hussein resign spurs arguments

March 02, 2003|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt - An unexpectedly turbulent Arab League summit whose goal was to find a unified position on Iraq nearly disintegrated yesterday amid shouting between Libya's Col. Muammar el Kadafi and the Saudi crown prince, and a proposal by the United Arab Emirates recommending that Saddam Hussein resign.

The Emirates' proposal, which had been discussed only in private meetings, marked the first time an Arab country has publicly urged Hussein to step down as Iraq's president. But in an indication of its sensitivity, the proposal was not discussed by league members.

"They didn't have the courage," said Emirates Information Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed, whose father, the Emirates' ruler, made the proposal.

The shouting match between Kadafi and Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdullah, broadcast internationally, offered a glimpse at how the crisis over Iraq has brought to the fore long-held antagonisms between Arab countries over their relationships with the United States.

Toward the end of his long introductory speech, Kadafi accused Saudi Arabia of "striking an alliance with the devil" when King Fahd allowed the United States to base its soldiers on Saudi territory. "America only comes by Arab invitation," Kadafi said.

Infuriated, Abdullah, jabbing his finger at Kadafi, retorted, "Saudi Arabia is not an agent of colonialism." Then he added: "Who exactly brought you to power? You are a liar and your grave awaits you."

At that point, Egyptian television cut its live coverage.

That public display of acrimony underscored that despite years of political rhetoric about the common concerns of all Arabs, Arab states are no more unified than Europeans on the question of Iraq.

At the end of the summit, the attendees managed only a weakly worded resolution urging more time for weapons inspections and asserting that no Arab state should aid the war effort. It carefully avoided saying anything specific about allowing the presence of U.S. troops. At least five Arab countries have U.S. troops on their soil who are preparing in case a U.S.-led attack is ordered on Iraq.

Instead of toeing a previously agreed-upon line, the 22 representatives, 10 of them heads of state, spoke heatedly, each urging the others to take one of three positions.

One group - the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain - sees war as inevitable and even desirable, and thinks the region should focus on the aftermath.

A second group - Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Algeria and Somalia - wants Arab countries to express strong opposition to a war.

A third group - Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - staked out the middle ground, saying Arab countries should use their moral suasion to push Iraq to disarm.

No one position won out. Attendees agreed to send delegations to the United Nations, Washington and "other concerned capitals" including Baghdad, but it was unclear what message the envoys would bear, given the discord.

Alissa J. Rubin is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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