- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan — The U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein forced Iraq’s neighbors to contemplate their weaknesses and lack of democracy, Arab leaders said yesterday in a debate that revealed fears about what Washington might have in store next for the region.

Iraq was among the main themes at the World Economic Forum, held for the first time in the Middle East, which joins influential CEOs and entrepreneurs with politicians to discuss global issues.

More than 1,100 participants, including 11 heads of state or government and dozens of cabinet ministers attended the three-day meeting, which opened yesterday on the shores of the Dead Sea with the BBC-sponsored debate on Iraq.

In a speech, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said much had changed since the last World Economic Forum meeting at its headquarters in the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos.

“Then, we talked about the looming war in Iraq. Now, we talk about speeding up humanitarian outreach … reconstruction … and credible Iraqi government that represents all its people,” King Abdullah said.

“Then, we talked about winning a commitment to the ‘road map’ to peace for Israel and Palestine. Now, we talk about making that commitment a reality; a comprehensive peace; two states, living side by side, in peace and stability.”

During the debate, the United States was accused of planning to remake Iraq into its version of an Arab democracy, then impose that model on the rest of the region.

In defense, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States wanted democracy, economic vibrancy and peace for Iraq and the rest of the Arab world and was ready to work with partners in the region who shared that vision.

“Arab countries are eager for change and at their own pace,” Mr. Lugar said. “They want support from the United States, and they will get it.”

Joining Mr. Lugar on the debate panel, Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani, said uneasiness over U.S. intentions never would have come up had Arabs reformed themselves.

“If we’d had democracy, they [Iraqis] would have removed Saddam Hussein long ago, and we would not have these problems,” said Sheik Hamad, whose tiny Gulf country is a close U.S. ally.

Many in the audience — including a Saudi woman who said she feared her conservative kingdom was being asked to democratize and modernize at dangerous “hyperspeed” — expressed suspicion that the United States was enforcing change.

America’s credentials as a reformer also were questioned by those who cited chaos and violence in post-Saddam Iraq. Others accused the United States of sidelining Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“What has democracy done for the people who are downtrodden? Those are serious questions asked by the people,” summed up Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, a panelist.

Mr. Moussa accused the United States of planning the region’s future without consulting its people or its leaders and without giving Arabs credit for their own attempts to change.

A forum survey of business leaders released at the start of the conference showed lingering pessimism in the wake of the Iraq war. Of the one-third of businesses that put investment plans on hold since the Iraq war, three-fourths had not yet restarted investment.

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