Arab League Meeting Aims Mainly to Muffle Disputes

OFFICIALS at the Sept. 27 Arab League meeting in Tunis will try to avoid controversial issues that would widen the rift that has grown between Arab states since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. Even though representatives from all 21 member states will attend, open discussion has been suspended to avoid argument over relocation of League headquarters to Cairo and other contentious topics.

``Discussion has been delayed to an undetermined date to delay the violent confrontations,'' says Muhammad Sayed Said, chairman of Arab Affairs at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. ``It is possible that informal discussion will take place behind the scenes.''

Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent emergency summit Aug. 10, Arab alliances have been in a tailspin. The Egyptian-led camp, including Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Djibouti, Somalia, and the six Gulf states, all condemn Saddam Hussein's actions.

Eight other members of the League, Jordan, Sudan, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Mauritania sympathize with Iraq in varying degrees. Most boycotted earlier ministerial meetings, including the one that confirmed relocation of League headquarters to Cairo.

At that Sept. 10 meeting, the 12 nations opposing Iraq voted to follow-through with a March decision to move Arab League headquarters back to Cairo. They decided most departments should be transferred by Oct. 31.

The headquarters was moved to Tunis in 1979 when Egypt was ousted from the League for its peace with Israel.

But returning League offices to Cairo, a gesture of Egypt's complete readmittance into the organization, has been a hotly debated point since Kuwait was invaded. After Egypt led in amassing Arab support to defend Saudi Arabia, Saddam, who had ealier backed moving the headquarters, switched to oppose it. Tunis, which had discouraged the move from the start, raised its own objections.

Alliances have been damaged by the Gulf crisis, yet it may end up being just another chapter in the shifting of Arab camps, sources say. The disparate countries over time may drift back to the main fold. ``They will come back because Egypt and its supporters are in winners' camp,'' a Western official predicts.

The Gulf crisis illustrates how unpredictable relationships really are in the Middle East. ``Arab politics are personal politics, depending on the leaders,'' says Salwa Goma, senior researcher at the National Center for Middle East Studies. ``We can't predict anything. There is no logic here.''

The Iraqi sympathizers will take a more neutral stance before they will align themselves with Iraq, Dr. Said says. ``They will avoid a total alliance with Iraq,'' he says. ``They want to distance themselves from the Iraqi position. The number of Arab countries will tend to look more neutral.''

Egypt and its allies have also chosen the side with more international consensus, money, and military might. Still, there is another glitch in the League's attempts to resume work, namely the need to hire a new chief. League Secretary General Chedli Klibi resigned when Saudi Arabia convinced mostArab states to defend Saudi territory. The number two appointee, Lebanese-born Assad al-Assad, is temporarily in charge.

Appointing a new secretary general will require a two-thirds majority of the 21 members, according to the Arab League charter. This issue, however, is likely to be delayed until a later meeting.

Experts argue that while Egypt may want to reassign one of its own to head the League, a better strategy might be to name an Algerian. This could increase support from the Maghreb states.

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