Trying to avoid a war
Today's Istanbul summit will involve regional players aiming to achieve a most difficult task -- trying to prevent a war in Iraq. Nevine Khalil and Soha Abdelaty report
While anti-war demonstrations raged on the streets of Cairo, diplomatic consultations behind closed doors intensified ahead of today's six-way meeting in Istanbul between the foreign ministers of Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iran. Shortly after a meeting between President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal on Tuesday, Cairo and Riyadh confirmed that they will attend the Istanbul summit, which aims to avert a US-led war against Iraq.
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President Mubarak with Saudi Arabia's Al-Faisal discuss how to avert war in the region ahead of the six-way summit in Istanbul
According to Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, Arab states have a three-point agenda in the coming few weeks. "First, to urge Iraq to fully cooperate with the weapons inspectors; second, to call on the inspectors to carry out their job objectively and avoid any provocative actions; third, to press on the international community that any action should be within the framework of the UN Security Council and according to international legitimacy."
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been fine tuning their expectations for the meeting in Istanbul, which was demoted from the level of heads of state to foreign ministers. "Egypt does not see the necessity of holding a summit, unless the ministers agree to recommend [such a meeting] to the leaders, and the leaders in turn, agree to one," Maher said on Tuesday.
According to Al-Faisal, "there is only one item on our agenda at the meeting -- to try to prevent military action against Iraq." This effort is being undertaken because a war would "harm not only Iraq's interests but the interests of all the countries in the region, and in the world, at the head of which is the US".
Turkish officials had suggested that the meeting may even decide to send a delegation to Baghdad to meet with Saddam, while Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said on Tuesday that the Istanbul meeting will focus on pressing Iraq to cooperate with inspectors to prove that it does not have weapons of mass destruction.
Although Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul had, earlier in the week, said that the meeting would "look at all the options", Yakis said that delegates will not look to persuade Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to go into exile.
The Arabs have also distanced themselves from the possibility of discussing Saddam's ouster; both Maher and Al- Faisal denied that their countries are exploring the subject. "That it is not on the agenda, and it does not concern us," insisted Maher, while Al-Faisal noted that "we did not broach this subject because Egypt and Saudi Arabia believe that any regime change must come from within and not be imposed from abroad."
At the same time, Al-Faisal was vague about a reported joint effort to seek amnesty for some Iraqi leaders. "We will convey our views on this subject to the official bodies," he said, without giving details. These reports claimed that Saudi Arabia proposed a UN Security Council resolution giving amnesty to the vast majority of Iraqi officials if they orchestrate a transition of power in Baghdad.
Asked whether Arab leaders are pressuring Saddam to accept exile, Al-Faisal replied: "Is there a need to pressure Saddam Hussein? If that is the case, the pressure is already there." At the same time, Maher denied that there will be a specific Egyptian-Saudi initiative at the Istanbul gathering, saying that "there is cooperation with many parties to avoid a military threat."
Meanwhile, a top Egyptian delegation which includes Mubarak's chief political adviser Osama El-Baz, Economy Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali and the ruling party's political secretary Gamal Mubarak, will head to the US on 27 January for talks with officials there. The delegation is expected to visit several cities, including Washington, to discuss regional politics. El-Baz said on Monday that US efforts to topple Saddam would set a "serious precedent" and would be "contrary to the sovereignty of states and the rights of people to self- determination".
Saddam's exile, meanwhile, seems rather appealing to the US. "The best solution of all," US Ambassador to Cairo David Welch told reporters on Sunday, "would be for Mr Hussein to take a very long vacation from political power... As far as the US is concerned, a change of regime in Baghdad would be very welcome."
Washington has also given its blessing to today's meeting in Istanbul, which gives weight to the discussions taking place and their eventual outcome. "The United States welcomes any effort that makes it very clear to the regime in Baghdad its responsibilities, which are to disarm completely, totally and immediately," noted Welch after meeting with Maher. Meanwhile, US Congressman Brian Baird said that his country would have a "strong responsibility" when it came to rebuilding Iraq following a war. Baird, who was speaking after meeting Mubarak on Tuesday, said that in case of war there must be "a strong commitment to avoid civilian casualties."
Mubarak had announced last week that an Iraqi envoy was expected in Cairo by Saturday, but within hours the envoy's trip was postponed indefinitely. But another of Saddam's envoys made it to Libya on Saturday where he met with Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi. Actually, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarek Aziz was in Tripoli hours before Mubarak made an unannounced visit there in the afternoon. Mubarak and Gaddafi discussed the threats facing the region, although the Libyan leader deemed the Istanbul meeting useless if it does not convince Bush to back down from attacking Iraq. "What could this meeting do? What is it going to demand from Saddam Hussein after he has opened his country up for the inspections... and opened his house and his office for the inspections? What more are they going to demand from him? Suicide?" Gaddafi asked AP on Saturday.
Aziz, who returned to Baghdad on Sunday from a tour of North African states, cautiously welcomed the Istanbul meeting if its aim was to find ways to avert an attack on Iraq. "If this is what the meeting is about, then it is good because neighbouring nations have been saying that this aggression will cause a great deal of problems," Aziz told Iraqi television.
Before his trip to Libya, Mubarak met with his top political aides, telling them that Saddam must come clear in words and deeds on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Mubarak urged Iraq that it had "an obligation to implement UN Security Council resolutions" on disarmament "so that its people could be spared war".