- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, March 1 (UPI) — The United Arab Emirates submitted a proposal Saturday at the Arab League summit urging Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to step down and leave the country within two weeks of accepting the request.

After presentations from several heads of state, the 22 members of the Arab League concluded the one-day summit with a vote to form a committee to present the organization's anti-war stance to the U.N. Security Council and then to consult with the Iraqi government. However, Arab diplomats told United Press International privately the session was shut down a few hours early because of a burgeoning row between Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Abdullah.

The wording of the final statement appeared to refute the UAE proposal, speaking of refusal "to participate in military action" and "to impose changes in the region." However, the vote does allow Arab nations — particularly the Gulf states that already host U.S. troops — to go on record as being against any U.S.-led war against Iraq while leaving the door open to encourage Saddam to leave voluntarily.

The UAE initiative, a copy of which was made available to UPI, was submitted for debate by President Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al-Nahyan within hours of the summit's formal opening for heads of state at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. Saturday's session followed several days of minister-level negotiations this week that did not include — at least openly — a call for Saddam's resignation and exile, but rumors of such proposals have circulated the Arab world for months. The United Arab Emirates, which juts into the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Oman, is the first official voice to go on record, however.

The proposal does not refer to Saddam by name, but guarantees "the Iraqi leadership" a safe departure from the country. It also calls for interim Arab League supervision of Iraq with the cooperation of the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Sheik Zayed's proposal further seeks "legal and binding international guarantees that the Iraqi leadership" will be immune from prosecution in "every manner." Under the proposal, a general amnesty would be granted "for all Iraqis, inside and outside Iraq."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters in Sharm el-Sheikh after the summit that the UAE initiative "stemmed from sick minds."

Sabri continued, "No paper was submitted of such a filthy initiative or any such silly matters of the sort." He said instead he welcomed the summit's final resolution against military action.

A senior European official in Washington said Friday that the Bush administration not only backed the call for Saddam to step down but had also included a deadline of March 14 — after which hostilities could begin at any time. The United States says Saddam has not disarmed as he agreed in the 1991 armistice to end the Gulf War and has threatened military action to ensure he no longer harbors weapons or technology of mass destruction.

Sources in Sharm el-Sheikh said the summit plans to send a delegation to Baghdad to press the Arab nations' anti-war position and confirmed the Bush administration's support.

The proposal was one of several declarations presented at the summit and Arab leaders are unlikely to unite over a move to remove one of their own from power, no matter how unpopular. But the precedent of allowing, even facilitating, the United States to remove him is also an uncomfortable prospect, as is the regional unrest that many Arab leaders believe a U.S.-led war on Iraq will cause.

Syria has argued that Arab nations can and should hamper U.S. capability to wage war by denying American forces access to their military facilities. Its delegation repeated the call Saturday morning. But it is unlikely to reach broad support when influential countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — which assumed the rotating Arab League presidency from Lebanon on Saturday — have already given the United States access.

The summit's host, Egypt, after reversing its previously noncommittal attitude abruptly last Saturday about convening a gathering, was careful not to subscribe to one position or another.

"We want to do everything in our power to avoid war, and we encourage other countries to do the same," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told reporters Saturday. He described a war with Iraq as "negative for not only the Iraqi people and for this region, but for the world in general."

The proposal that Saddam and other senior Iraqi officials bow out follows months of rumors about behind-the-scenes efforts as well as calls in the Arab press have been floating for weeks.

In December Ghassan Tweini, former Lebanese politician and the publisher of al-Nahar daily, printed an open letter to the Iraqi president proposing he quit in return for asylum in another country. And in early January a group of Arab intellectuals, writers and lawyers in Europe published a statement saying Saddam should "resign immediately," 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.

Well-placed sources have also told UPI that Russian Arabist and former Prime Minister Yvgeny Primakov has encouraged Saddam to abandon his position while visiting the Iraqi leader in Baghdad.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell raised the issue himself on Thursday with regard to the upcoming Arab summit, saying he hoped one of its messages would be that stepping down "might be in his best interest … and let some responsible leadership take over in Baghdad and allow the international community to help that responsible leadership disarm itself of its weapons of mass destruction as required by (U.N. Resolution) 1441, and work with the international community to provide a better life for the people of Iraq."

Resolution 1441, which the Security Council passed in November, paved the way for a return of weapons inspectors in Iraq and threatened "serious consequences" if Saddam did not disarm.

Saddam has openly dismissed the idea of a regime change, most recently in an interview with U.S. network CBS. He told anchor Dan Rather, "We (referring to himself) were born in Iraq as part of a glorious nation. We lived in Iraq and God has honored us — through the Iraqis — by allowing us to assume this position and this stand that we adopt. Therefore, we will also die in Iraq, or on the soil of the nation, as God Almighty dictates."

The Arab League has found little difficulty in agreeing it must exert full effort to avert war but has argued sharply about what form such efforts should take. The tension broke out into the open on Saturday in a sharp exchange between Libya's Gadhafi and Saudi Arabia's Abdullah on relationships with the United States.

Diplomats, relating the exchange on the condition of anonymity, said the Libyan leader announced in a speech that he telephoned Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz to verify the kingdom's reception of the American forces after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

The Libyan leader said: "The king told me that America was a superpower and can do whatever it wants," adding that the Saudis told him of Iraqi intentions to invade Saudi Arabia.

The sources explained that at that point, Abdullah interrupted Gadhafi's speech, saying: "The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not an agent for colonialism like your kind (Gadhafi's) and others."

The Saudi prince, who has been effectively handling the oil-rich kingdom's affairs in recent years, reportedly added to the Libyan leader: "Who brought your kind to power? Who brought you? Who brought you?"

The prince warned Gadhafi about "involvement in matters of which you have no luck, for lies and the grave are before you."

The summit's final resolution called for a four-state committee to "make the necessary contacts" with the U.N. Security Council member states and with Iraq to reach a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The committee would include a representative of Lebanon as the previous chairman of the Arab summit, of Bahrain as the current one, of Tunisia as the next chairman, as well as Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mousa.

The statement simultaneously urged Iraq to "continue in implementing Security Council Resolution 1441," which calls for Iraq's disarmament, and urged the United Nations to give international weapons inspectors "enough time to complete their mission in Iraq."

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