Monday, December 22, 2003

Comments by the head of the Iraqi mission in Damascus, Syria, in support of a long-standing Arab boycott of Israeli companies and those who do business with them are being dismissed by U.S. officials, the Israelis and others as lacking the official force of a fully sovereign government.

Sabah Abdel Wahab al-Iman was among 18 Arab League members who attended a little-reported meeting of the Office of Boycotting Israel in Damascus in October, expressing his support for the economic boycott. He said Iraq also would oppose the awarding of contracts to Israel during Iraq’s reconstruction.

“The Iraqi interim government is seeking to re-establish legitimacy in the Arab world in the wake of the U.S.-led liberation of that country,” said one high-ranking U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be identified. “With a permanent government not yet in place, I would view the comments simply as premature.”

At the five-day Damascus meeting, some Arab League members, most noticeably Syria, made strong calls for a “revitalization” of the Arab world’s economic boycott of Israeli products and contracts, and discussed the blacklisting of several companies because of their ties to Israel.

Mr. al-Iman attended the meeting after the Arab League allowed the U.S.-approved Iraqi Governing Council to again take the Iraqi seat during wide-ranging league meetings that began in September.

That decision had been hailed as a desperately needed signal of acceptance and as a first step toward international recognition of the Iraqi Governing Council, U.S. officials said.

Iraq specialist Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Haifa and now on a one-year fellowship at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, called Mr. al-Iman’s participation at the boycott meeting “regretful.”

“While it is clear Iraq is trying to win acceptance from Arab countries, this was the wrong way to do it,” Mr. Baram said. “We can only hope they won’t do it again.

“I would have expected Iraq not to assume a high-profile, anti-Israeli position at this point, while it seeks to establish a permanent government and tensions remain huge,” he said. “This public rejection of Israel was uncalled-for and a bad way to start on a path to peaceful co-existence with all states.”

Mr. Baram noted, however, that the message was delivered by “a junior Cabinet member,” not someone directly from the Iraqi Governing Council.

“Although very disappointing, I would not expect that the comments have a lot of influence anywhere right now,” he said.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said that although Iraq is still attempting to establish a legitimate government in the wake of the U.S.-led coalition operation, no such government is in place that has the authority to issue policy statements.

“When such a government is established, we would hope it would be like other members of the Arab League who have peaceful and cooperative relations with Israel,” he said.

The boycott prohibits the importation of Israeli-origin goods and services to participating Arab nations, discriminates against U.S. and other foreign firms that do business with Israel and the boycotting countries, and prohibits Arab League states from engaging in business with U.S. or other foreign firms that contribute to Israel’s military or economic development.

The U.S. Treasury Department, which administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions through its Office of Foreign Assets Control based on U.S. foreign policy and national-security goals, did not return telephone calls for comment concerning Mr. al-Iman’s statements.

Arab League members Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania and Comoros did not attend. In addition to Iraq, other member nations who attended the boycott meeting were Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

• Paul Martin in Baghdad contributed to this article.

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