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Arab League Adjourns in Angry Discord

Times Staff Writer

An unexpectedly turbulent Arab League summit whose goal was to find a unified position on Iraq nearly disintegrated Saturday amid a shouting match between Libya’s Moammar Kadafi and the Saudi Arabian crown prince and a proposal by the United Arab Emirates recommending that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein resign.

The UAE proposal, which had been discussed previously only in private meetings, marked the first time that an Arab country has publicly urged Hussein to step down. But in an indication of its sensitivity, the proposal was not even discussed by league members.

“They didn’t have the courage,” said UAE Information Minister Sheik Abdullah ibn Zayed, whose father, the UAE’s ruler, made the proposal.

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

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Toward the end of his lengthy introductory speech, Kadafi, dressed in dramatic African robes, accused Saudi Arabia of “striking an alliance with the devil” when King Fahd allowed the U.S. 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 of the meeting.

This public display of acrimony underscored the reality 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, which had originally been scheduled for the end of March but was moved up, 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. But they carefully avoided saying anything specific about hosting U.S. troops. At least five Arab countries have American troops on their soil preparing for a possible U.S.-led attack on Baghdad.

“There isn’t one unified position on Iraq; it’s not like the Palestinian-Israeli issue,” said Sharif Elmusa, chairman of the Middle East Studies department at American University in Cairo.

The only thing the Arab countries share, said Elmusa, is deep anxiety about what a war in Iraq would mean for each one.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty by each of these countries about what will happen in the aftermath. If the United States sits in Iraq, Saudis wonder what it will mean for them,” he said. “If the U.S. has Iraq, then does Kuwait become a marginal place? If you have a democracy in Iraq, the majority are Shiite Muslims. Do Kuwaitis want two countries on their borders -- Iran and Iraq -- ruled by Shias?” A majority of Kuwaitis are Sunni Muslims.

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The fear that no country in the region is safe if the United States can wage war on Iraq was particularly evident in the comments of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a vigorous opponent of an attack. Speaking in contained but visibly angry tones, he accused the United States of trying to secure Iraq’s “oil and redrawing the region’s map.”

“We are all targeted,” he said. “We are all in danger.”

Instead of toeing a previously agreed-upon line, as has happened at previous summits, the 22 representatives, 10 of them heads of state, spoke in heated voices, 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 -- see war as inevitable, even desirable, and believe that the region should focus on the aftermath.

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

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

No one position won out. While attendees agreed to send delegations to the U.N., Washington and “other concerned capitals,” including Baghdad, it was unclear what message the envoys would bring.

Although the summit refused to discuss the UAE’s proposal urging Hussein to step down, the move could have wide impact in the long term. “The fact that the Arabs are discussing all the options is significant,” said Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who attended the summit on behalf of the European Union, which Greece currently chairs.

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The proposal, which took the form of a letter circulated among journalists, called on Hussein and the Iraqi leadership to surrender power within two weeks of the adoption of the proposal. It would require all Arab states to guarantee that they would not prosecute the Iraqi leadership, and it proposed that Iraq be administered by the Arab League until the situation could return to normal.

Although there was no public discussion of the plan, the gulf countries were the most enthusiastic. Zayed, the UAE information minister, said Kuwait as well as Saudi Arabia had expressed support. Diplomats said Qatar was also sympathetic, and a number of others expressed support privately.

“We believe it was the right time” to offer the plan, Zayed said. But he added bitterly, “This was the last hope of an Arab solution to the Iraqi crisis.”

Iraq was clearly rattled that the proposal was made public. Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, who was in attendance, referred to Zayed as “a child agent who brought disgrace to his father and his country with this silly statement.”

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Lost in the bickering was the urgent message brought by Papandreou from Europe.

It is past the eleventh hour, he warned the Arab delegates. Unaware that his remarks were being broadcast, he said he had asked the United States what it would take to avoid a war and the answer was a “regime change” or a dramatic move to disarm.

Though Papandreou said he found the first scenario unrealistic, there was a chance, he said, that the international community could pressure Iraq to comply with the second demand.

“What is needed is clear, unequivocal cooperation,” he said.

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“Is this too much to ask of Iraq? Can we say that it can be guaranteed that war can be avoided if there is full cooperation? No. But what we can guarantee is that the tide will turn, what we can guarantee is that then the European Union will speak with one voice.”

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Jailan Zayan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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