6 gulf nations decline to back Hussein's ouster

Arab leaders ambivalent about proposal, seeing it as threat to their rule, too

March 04, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - Arab leaders are debating whether to call on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to peacefully step aside but are deeply divided and fear it could establish a precedent that would threaten their authority, say analysts in the region.

In the latest sign of Arab ambivalence, six Persian Gulf states allied with the United States declined yesterday to endorse a proposal that called on Hussein to relinquish power as a means of averting war.

Three of the countries, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, were on record as supporting the idea, and the others are opponents of Hussein. But as a group, they declined to take a decision at a meeting of ministers in Doha, Qatar, saying the measure needed the backing of the broader Arab world.

"This has to be discussed among all the Arab states to see how this can be implemented," Qatar's foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, told reporters after the meeting.

The move was significant because the gulf states include several of the Arab countries most closely linked to the United States, such as Saudi Arabia. Collectively they serve as host to many of the U.S. forces within striking distance of Iraq and are considered far more likely to take a tough line with Hussein than Arab and Muslim countries in general.

Mohamed Said, deputy director of the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, said he believes all of the gulf states favor a voluntary departure by Hussein.

"But they don't want to clearly endorse it because they don't want to be seen as an American tool, and they don't want to set the precedent of Arab countries endorsing the removal of a fellow Arab leader," he said.

The critical issue is Arab sovereignty, he said. The United States was able to construct a strong Arab coalition to fight the gulf war in 1991 because Arab countries saw a threat to their independence when one Arab state, Iraq, swallowed another, Kuwait.

This time the same principle is working against American efforts to win Arab backing. Arab countries fear that the United States, by forcibly ousting Hussein, would be diminishing Arab sovereignty.

"The United States has explained its objectives in a way that frightens many in the region," noted Said. "There's no doubt that the real purpose is massive change in the Middle East. There's a feeling that it is going to be imposed, and this makes leaders nervous."

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