- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

CAIRO — The stakes involved in a U.S. plan for Arab reform were so high that Arab foreign ministers here yesterday sent it to their leaders to debate at a summit in Tunis, Tunisia, later this month, the Arab League chief said.

The ministers of the 22-member Arab League ended days of intense discussions on the U.S. initiative for political and economic change in the Middle East without reaching a consensus, Secretary-General Amr Mussa told reporters.

“Given the seriousness of the issue touching on problems tied to national sovereignty and the whole region’s future, the ministers decided to send it as it is, and documents related to it, to the heads of state,” he said.

Arab monarchs, presidents and other leaders are to hold their summit in Tunis on March 29-30.

After Egypt and Jordan presented separate plans, the ministers had hoped during their meetings here to draft a joint initiative for reform, which would amount to a counterproposal to Washington’s “Greater Middle East Initiative.”

They described the U.S. initiative as interference in their affairs and criticized its failure to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

However, Qatar on Wednesday criticized Arab states for rejecting the U.S. initiative before knowing its contents.

Washington, which has sought to reassure Arabs that such a plan can only work if reform comes from within, hopes to launch its initiative during a summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in June.

The U.S. initiative aims to encourage democratic reform and economic opening in the Arab world and other Muslim countries in a bid to abate the frustration and poverty on which international terror is thought to thrive.

Nearly all the Arab countries are ruled by authoritarian regimes.

The ministers nonetheless agreed that political, economic and social reforms sought by Washington must “come from within” and that it was up to each government to set its own pace for change.

In a separate resolution, the ministers called for the respect of human rights in Arab countries.

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