On Iraq question, cracks widen in Arab unity

Over the weekend, the United Arab Emirates proposed an exile scenario for Saddam Hussein.

The Arab world's efforts to speak with one voice about a US-led war against Iraq became a full-throated shouting match over the weekend.

At the emergency Arab League Summit here, called to discuss ways to avert war, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi accused Saudi Arabian leaders of making a "deal with the devil" - paving the way for US presence in the region by allowing American troops to defend the Arabian peninsula during the Gulf War a dozen years ago.

The spat that ensued exposed both the region's open wounds and a rising feeling of impotence in the face of a US military juggernaut poised to invade an Arab neighbor. It also underscored a growing debate in the Arab world of how to hinder US plans to create what some pro-Western political analysts refer to as a "Pax Americana" in the Middle East, but what many Arab leaders fear will be a new form of colonialism.

The ailing Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, his head draped in a traditional bleached-white kaffiyeh, did not disguise his rage at Mr. Qaddafi's remarks. "Saudi Arabia has never worked for US interests," he said, shaking his forefinger at the Libyan leader. "You are a liar and your grave awaits you." The crown prince stood up and walked for the door as Egypt's "live broadcast" of the proceedings went abruptly blank.

Few leaders in the Arab world will admit openly that they trust US intentions in the region, but several, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain are allowing US troops to be stationed on their soil as US war plans move ahead. Analysts say the region's leaders remain afraid of broader US goals of regime change.

"I believe that US national security interests will drive nation building across the region, a new kind of Marshall plan for the Middle East," says Prof. Hala Mustafa, an analyst at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. "But this terrifies authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, especially the ones that pay lip service to democracy and that have been accused by Washington of having unofficial or official ties to terror."

The divisions at the summit began Saturday. In the first official sign that some Arab states, desperate to avoid a war in their backyard, might help arrange for the peaceful removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power, the president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offered a vague plan for Mr. Hussein's permanent exile.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan proposed the idea of exile and amnesty for Hussein in a closed afternoon session, defying a long-standing Arab resistance to interfering in the internal affairs of a neighbor.

Several larger Arab nations, including Egypt and Syria, greeted the idea as a slap in the face for their own efforts to present unified opposition to the US stance that military force must be used to disarm Iraq of its proscribed weapons.

"It is just like one of these Gulf states to criticize the rest of us and come up with this kind of a plan," said an indignant Egyptian official. "Yes, we might all be hoping for this in private because it would remove any pretext for the US president to go to war, but it is not what we need at this time."

The proposal urges Hussein and his close associates to surrender power in exchange for full immunity. One UAE official said that Hussein could enjoy his exile "shopping at our duty-free stores in Dubai."

The details of the plan also offer Mr. Bush a way out of attempting what Western military analysts believe would be an extremely risky attempt to occupy Iraq after Saddam's departure. It suggests that the United Nations together with the Arab League should supervise Iraq's transition to new leadership.

Saudi officials, who were rumored earlier this year to have taken the exile idea to Saddam in person, did not dismiss the UAE proposal.

"We are still discussing it," said Saudi Arabian foreign minister Saud Al Faisal after the proposal circulated. "I call it an idea. It is not an initiative."

Arab analysts say that the UAE proposal is likely to move forward only through unofficial channels, since no Arab leader wants to be seen to be working too closely with Washington.

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