- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

LONDON, Jan. 10 (UPI) — Arab voices are for the first time openly calling for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's resignation and his departure from Iraq to prevent what could be catastrophic U.S. military action against his people. The issue has become a topic of debate in the Arab press, especially in the Arab Gulf states.

This week, a group of Arab intellectuals, writers and lawyers in Europe published a statement saying Saddam should "resign immediately" and calling on the Arab world to exert every possible effort to remove Saddam and his collaborators from power so as to avert war. The writers also called for the appointment of international human rights observers in Iraq to monitor the transition to a democratic government.

The proposal, dismissed as mere fantasy a month ago when it was first proposed by former Lebanese politician and the publisher of al-Nahar daily, Ghassan Tweini, has begun to attract serious and widespread Arab attention.

In an open letter to the Iraqi president, Tweini proposed that he should quit in return for asylum in another country.

The call for Saddam's resignation is not exactly new. It first surfaced after the collapse of the Iraqi army before the end of the 1991 Gulf War. For a while, French intelligence even claimed that Saddam had moved to Algeria.

But he stayed on in Baghdad, consolidating his position by purging a number of high officials and replacing them with trusted collaborators.

These days, Arab newspapers have been filled with "leaks" from Arab and Western diplomatic and intelligence sources, quoting Iraqi officials as saying that Saddam would refuse to receive any Arab delegation, at any level, that came to Baghdad to ask him to quit his post, or even to discuss the issue with him. Press reports say he would even refuse if the decision were taken in an Arab summit convened for the purpose.

Arab sources said a delegation from a Cairo-based organization called the Egyptian Committee for Solidarity with the Iraqi and Palestinian People was heading for Baghdad in an effort to persuade the Iraqis to form a "national salvation" government.

Sources in the group, which includes former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former Algerian president Ahmad Benbella, said the new government would include Iraqi opposition groups and would remove the tough restrictions imposed on the Iraqi press.

More significant was the slowly mounting pressure from some Arab governments to find a way out of the crisis. Well-connected Arab sources said they expected a change in Egyptian policy towards Iraq, and Iraqi opposition figures would soon be received in Cairo.

The sources credited British Prime Minister Tony Blair with convincing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the need for a regime change in Iraq while the Blair family was on vacation in Egypt last fall. They said they expected high-level Egyptian officials to lead an Arab initiative to pressure Saddam to resign and leave the country with his family and close collaborators. Saddam would be offered asylum in another Arab country.

Meanwhile, semi-official Arab sources said Saudi Arabia has told Washington it will make a last effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi crisis if the U.N. arms inspectors showed in their upcoming report on Jan. 27 that they could find no evidence that Iraq was building and storing weapons of mass destruction.

So far — the sources said — efforts connected with the idea of Saddam abandoning his post have been conducted "from a distance." However, some Arab officials believe there could be an extraordinary Arab summit held in Baghdad, in which Saddam would surprise the other Arab leaders by announcing his resignation.

The possibility of Saddam resigning has not received the same attention in the United States and the West and preparations for war are gaining momentum. But Arab commentators make the point that Washington has not delegated anyone to explore this possibility either with Arab governments or directly with Iraq.

Arab talk about unseating Saddam, however, reflects a growing desire among Arab governments to resolve the crisis for themselves, without a U.S.-led intervention.

Some Iranian government officials have also joined in voicing their expectations regarding the issue. Sources close to the decision-makers in the capital, Tehran, said Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was mediating to persuade Saddam to resign, but there was no confirmation of this from Moscow sources. They said that German foreign minister Joska Fischer had told his Iranian counterpart in a telephone conversation that Washington was seeking a "bloodless coup" with the help of the Russian president.

They also claimed that Russian Arabist and former Prime Minister Yvgeny Primakov was arranging a visit by Putin to Baghdad to convince the Iraqi president to abandon his position and to take him to Moscow.

Meanwhile, speculation and rumors continue as to the country Saddam would choose for his exile. While some believed he would go to an Arab country, especially Egypt, Algeria or Libya, others mentioned Cuba, North Korea, and Belarus.

Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammad Mehdi Saleh last week insisted that the Baghdad regime would put up a fierce fight against an American attack in the coming months, "more fierce than during the 1991 Gulf war." He said that the Gulf War "revolved around whether or not to withdraw from Kuwait. Now, the issue is whether or not to abandon our land, and this we will fight for."

Many Arabs give little credence to the idea that Saddam or any other Arab ruler would go voluntarily, although the region has witnessed a number of departures from power in the past 50 years.

Saudi Arabia's King Saud was expelled from his country in 1955, Yemeni President Abdallah Salal was overthrown in 1966, and the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, fled his country a few weeks before the victory of the Islamic revolution in his country in 1979.

The Iraqi Baath Party itself has a precedent when Saddam announced in 1979 the "resignation" of his predecessor, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, "for the service of the nation and cause." This was regarded as an internal military coup, especially after the authorities in Baghdad declared the "mysterious" death of Bakr a few weeks later.

The Iraqi opposition is divided into two camps regarding the future of Saddam. One camp, which includes many members who served Saddam at one point, say Saddam would prefer death to such a solution. They say the Iraqi president could not accept a defeat. The familiar remark that "Saddam reserves the last bullet in his pistol for himself," however, is widely regarded as naive.

The other opposition camp expects Saddam would not hesitate to make a concession to cling to power, no matter how humiliating, if he found himself forced to do so. He has made such humiliating concessions to Iran in 1975, and to the United States when he accepted the cease-fire terms of the 1991 Gulf War.

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(Hussain Hindawi is the editor of United Press International's London-based Arab News Service. "In the Levant" is published in English and in Arab media. Its views are not necessarily those of UPI.)

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