Arab leaders lose hope on efforts to avert Iraq war

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister was in Washington yesterday to meet with President Bush.

After weeks of behind-the-scenes activity to head off war, Arab leaders appear to have lost hope that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will fully cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors.

According to Arab diplomats, these leaders now believe that a potentially devastating conflict is inevitable. With thousands of US troops deploying in Kuwait for a possible invasion of Iraq, they say, Arab efforts to find a face-saving diplomatic formula are failing.

"I genuinely believe that they have lost faith in a peaceful outcome," says a senior Arab diplomat in the Gulf. "Time has run out and it's clear to them that Saddam is not going to adhere to UN resolutions."

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, is in Washington for talks with senior US administration officials in a last-ditch effort to find a peaceful solution. Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of moves by Arab states to persuade Mr. Hussein to step down quietly. The flagging initiative, which has been officially denied by Saudi officials, was given a boost on Wednesday when Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Washington would be willing to help Hussein seek exile.

"If he were to leave the country and take some of his family members with him and others in the elite who have been responsible for so much trouble during the course of his regime, we would, I am sure, try to help find a place for him to go," he said.

But few Arabs believe that Hussein would accept such an offer, especially one which would not guarantee his immunity from future prosecution for war crimes.

In an indication that Arab patience with Hussein is wearing thin, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he has repeatedly warned the Iraqi leader that war is inevitable if he does not show more cooperation with the UN.

"The strike is coming unless Iraq abides by the resolutions of international legitimacy and ceases to put obstacles in front of the international inspection operations," Mr Mubarak told Al-Itihad, a United Arab Emirates newspaper.

For much of the crisis, the Arab world has been watching anxiously from the sidelines as Washington and Baghdad dictated the pace of events.

Mindful of Arab public hostility to Washington's Middle East policies, the region's regimes are unwilling to be seen openly siding with the United States against a fellow Arab leader, even one as unpopular as Hussein. At the same time, no Arab country can afford to confront the Americans head on over Iraq.

Abdullah Bishara, a former Kuwaiti ambassador to the UN, said that Arab diplomacy has been inadequate.

"A group of them should go to Baghdad and tell Saddam face to face to choose exile or face destruction," he said. "Instead, they have been using the worn-out argument of not interfering in another Arab country's affairs."

Last week, foreign ministers from Arab countries, Turkey, and Iran, meeting in Istanbul, implored Baghdad to "assume its responsibilities" and "embark on a policy that will unambiguously inspire confidence to Iraq's neighbors."

But regional confidence was dealt another blow when Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz warned Tuesday that Iraq would attack US troops in Kuwait if the US invades. Kuwaiti Defense Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah responded that President George Bush was correct in arguing that the Iraqi regime "cannot be trusted." He added that "any military action [by Iraq against Kuwait] would be suicide."

Kuwait is the one Arab country that openly supports the removal of Hussein, but other Arab leaders fear internal unrest if war breaks out in Iraq.

Earlier this week, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Arab capitals to protest against American and British threats of war.

Egypt prepares public

But Egypt has been taking steps to prepare the public for conflict. Egyptian newspapers have published less than sympathetic editorials and cartoons about Hussein.

Cairo also recently refused to receive Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of Saddam's closest confidantes, who was touring Arab capitals to drum up support.

In an editorial on Wednesday the Saudi daily Okaz called on Iraq to abide by UN Security Council demands to surrender nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons so as "not to give America any pretexts to surprise it with a war, whose dangers no country in the region will be spared."

"We tell Iraq frankly: Enough provocation, procrastination, and delaying," Okaz stated.

February deadline

But indications suggest that war is fast approaching. US troops training in the Kuwaiti desert near the border with Iraq are to deploy to their tactical assembly areas - launchpads for an attack - by Feb. 5. That is the same day that Mr. Powell is to disclose new evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to the UN Security Council.

The headquarters staff of British Army units have arrived in Kuwait to prepare for the deployment of some 26,000 troops.

Mr. Bishara says he is sure that war is now "inevitable."

"It's coming at us with the speed of Ben Johnson," he says, referring to the Canadian sprinter. "I think the Arabs have resigned themselves to the inevitability of war."

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