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Arabs Tell Iraq to Readmit Inspectors

Mideast: Some seeking arms monitors' return fear effects of U.S. attack. Others want Hussein out.

September 07, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — Arab leaders are quietly pressuring Iraq to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back, with some warning that if Saddam Hussein doesn't do so they will drop their vocal opposition to American military action, according to sources in the region.

The behind-the-scenes emphasis on the return of weapons inspectors is coming from two factions within the Arab community. Some countries fear that a U.S. attack on Iraq will destabilize the region, and believe that the only chance to avoid that is to have weapons inspectors on the ground. Other nations, which have made no secret of their own desire to see the Iraqi president ousted from power, are looking for an excuse to jump off the bandwagon of united Arab support for his regime.

"There is a kind of shuttling of positions," said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Egypt's most prestigious think tank. "Iraq is hearing, 'Let inspectors in or we can't defend you' and 'You do it or we are out.' "

Hussein has so far succeeded in rallying Arabs behind his beleaguered regime with the cry that "an attack on Iraq is an attack on the whole Arab nation." His emissaries have traveled the Arab world, standing side by side with leaders from Syria to Qatar and in each case enjoying a public endorsement of support.

But privately, the emissaries are getting a second message as well, and that is about the need to let weapons inspectors back in, according to Moneim Said and diplomatic sources in the region.

Iraq was forced to admit inspectors after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which a U.S.-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The United Nations has imposed severe trade sanctions until inspectors confirm that the regime has destroyed all weapons of mass destruction and its ability to produce more. Inspectors were withdrawn in 1998 ahead of U.S. airstrikes and have been blocked from returning by the Iraqis.

The success or failure of the Arab community in pushing Iraq to readmit inspectors could have a significant impact on U.S. plans. Though some officials in Washington have said the White House does not believe that the return of weapons monitors will make much difference to the U.S. plans, there is a broad feeling here that the Bush administration at least would have to give inspections a chance.

If Baghdad continues to block the return of inspectors, that could give strategic Gulf countries a face-saving way to allow the U.S. military use of their territory for launching an attack. Both Kuwait and Qatar are permitting bases that would be vital to any such action.

King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose nation borders Iraq and could find itself called upon to help the U.S. in the event of an invasion, recently linked the potential for an invasion to Iraq's own behavior.

"We will continue to offer all we can for Iraq," he said in an address to his nation. "But the decision in the end is that of the Iraqi leadership. They bear the responsibility in front of their people, nation and the world."

But the pressure on Hussein has been tempered, at least in public, by leaders who are mindful of public sentiment throughout the Arab world. People in the streets are solidly behind Iraq--if not Hussein personally--and against what is seen as the threat of American aggression.

At the same time, sources said, Hussein's emissaries have indicated that Baghdad is perhaps willing to let inspectors in but is looking for a way to do so without appearing to cave in to American demands. Iraq has insisted, and its Arab allies have publicly stated, that the return of inspectors must be linked to a timetable for the lifting of sanctions.

"They are trying to put it in a way that will make him [Hussein] look good," said Moneim Said. Iraqi officials have expressed various opinions publicly about whether the regime is prepared to accept monitors. Some officials, such as Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf, have said that inspectors finished their work and will never be allowed to return. Foreign Minister Naji Sabri has said Iraq is open to the idea of inspectors returning but is concerned that the U.S. will use them as spies.

The Arab League ended a two-day meeting in Cairo this week with a communique that rejected an attack on Iraq but called on Baghdad to comply with all U.N. resolutions. The league spokesman said that implicit in that was a call for the return of monitors.

"The return of the inspectors is an important step ... and serious discussions are underway between Iraq and the United Nations right now," league Secretary-General Amr Moussa said at a news conference Thursday.

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