ONLY a month after Iraq's defeat in Kuwait, an embittered and greatly weakened Arab League met for talks in Cairo Saturday. It was the first such meeting since an informal cease-fire was reached between Iraq and the United States-led coalition. The complexities of Arab postwar diplomacy were jarringly evident in what was the first official bid to mend the region's shattered relations. The meeting lasted only 90 minutes and scrupulously avoided all reference to Iraq or the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The 21-member League was riven into two opposing camps by Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and the Western military response which followed.
The last full session of the Arab League convened on Aug. 10 - a meeting that ended in near bedlam. Delegates referred to the talks as "chaotic." At one point Kuwait's then-exiled foreign minister retired amid a hail of insults from Iraq's delegation.
But in the end Egypt, Syria, and the Gulf states overruled resistance from other Arab countries to condemn the Iraqi occupation and commit troops to the "defense of Saudi Arabia." Only 12 of the League's 21 members supported the resolution. On the opposite side, Jordan, the PLO, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia sympathized with Iraq or opposed Western intervention in the region.
Surprisingly, all 21 attended this weekend's talks. Iraq sent Saad Qassem Hammoudi, head of the Arab desk at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. The PLO was represented by its ambassador to Cairo, Said Kamal.
The sole foreign minister present was Egypt's Esmat Abdel Meguid. Country representation at the talks, instead of the traditional foreign ministers, was kept to ambassadors or permanent delegates to the League.
The downgrading of repre-sentation - from foreign ministers to ambassadors - followed the announcement that the League's five North African members would send only ambassadors to the Cairo talks. The Algiers newspaper "Alger Republicain" said the low-level representation was meant to express reservations about the League's political line.
In an apparent bid to preempt the "protest," Cairo officials later announced that all countries attending would be represented at ambassadorial level only.
In his opening remarks, the Egyptian foreign minister called for an Arab reconciliation based on "complete frankness and clarity." His only reference to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was indirect: "We are sure that with the importance of studying the Gulf events, we have to grasp the experience and extract the lesson to avoid its repetition."
His words were echoed by Qatari delegate Badr Omar Al-Dafaa: "This bitter experience has brought to us new burdens that will be difficult to tackle without being honest with oneself and honest with each other."
Iraq's delegate, Mr. Hammoudi, later accused fellow Arab leaders of not helping Baghdad repel foreign occupiers. "There is now a foreign occupation in Iraq," he said, referring to the presence of US and other Western troops in southern Iraq.
Without any apparent ironic intent he continued, "Where are the Arab countries in implementing the Arab defense pact?" The 1950 joint-defense pact prohibits the use of force by member states against one another.
With Iraq in revolt and tens of thousands of Arab troops still serving in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, there has been no savoring of victory for Arab states that supported the US-led Operation Desert Shield. Even within the Arab alliance - Syria, Egypt, and the Gulf states - relations are uneasy.
In Egypt there is growing criticism over Kuwait's postwar treatment of Egyptians, along with other non-Kuwaiti Arabs, and Kuwait's failure to consider Egyptian firms for lucrative reconstruction contracts.
Kuwaiti sources, meanwhile, say their government plans to downgrade diplomatic representation to those Arab countries that supported Iraq during the occupation. Egypt and other Arab allies show no sign of lifting punitive entry requirements for Arab nationals holding "pro-Iraq" documents. The prevailing atmosphere is one of retribution, not reconciliation.
Cairo sources said the Arab League was unlikely to make any diplomatic headway in the coming months. They referred, instead, to "behind-the-scenes" diplomacy. A full session of the League is expected to follow in the coming months.
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was due to leave for Egypt Sunday for his first visit to Cairo since the end of the Gulf War. Syrian officials say the two leaders plan to discuss prospects for an Arab-Israeli settlement and the deep splits in the Arab world opened up by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.