Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
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Arab doors open to Iraq

By Rasha Saad

The 112th session of the Arab League ended on Monday. With Iraq in the chair there had been some expectations of discord at the meeting but these did not materialise and assessments were positive. Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Said Al-Sahaf summed up the mood: "Iraq is pursuing genuine reconciliation and we are happy that our [Arab] brothers are doing the same... We are moving toward rapprochement."

Iraq has not chaired the Arab League since before its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It was for this reason rather than because of the deteriorating situation in Iraq that the Iraqi issue was at the forefront. Chairmanship of the Arab League rotates among the member states according to Arabic alphabetical order.

According to prior indications, both Iraq and the Gulf countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, were coming to the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo with "an open heart and mind".

However, there were fears that Iraq taking the chair might exacerbate Arab divisions if the meeting descended into acrimony. Al-Sahaf stormed out of the league's extraordinary meeting in January after Arab ministers turned down an Iraqi request to condemn late December's US and British air-strikes against Iraq.

Concerns that the Gulf countries -- especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the states most resistant to Iraq's returning to the Arab fold -- would boycott the meeting or send a low-level representation also proved unfounded. In fact, Saudi Arabia sent its top diplomat, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, and Kuwait sent State Minister for Foreign Affairs Maged Al-Shahin.

The US also expressed concern over Iraq's taking the chair, in the belief that Baghdad would use it for propaganda purposes.

According to Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid, the meeting demonstrated "a new positive mood of reconciliation that we can build on in the future. The Gulf crisis is a problem, but at least now there is a beginning to find an acceptable solution."

Abdel-Meguid conceded that a proposal to hold an Arab summit was not raised during the foreign ministers' discussions, but said that the meeting's success bode well for the near future. Iraq's participation in any proposed Arab summit has proved the chief sticking point in the face of Kuwaiti and Saudi opposition. "The league's meeting is an indication that an Arab summit can be held in the same positive, relaxed and civilized atmosphere," Abdel-Meguid told reporters.

To some observers, however, the meeting maintained its calm atmosphere only because the foreign ministers intentionally avoided any discussion of thorny issues related to Iraq. Al-Sahaf told reporters that his country did not make any requests during the meeting. Neither were the devastating eight-year-old UN sanctions or the nearly daily US and British raids over the northern and southern no-fly zones on the agenda.

Al-Sahaf said that Iraq was satisfied with Abdel-Meguid's report on the previous Somali-chaired session in March which reiterated the league's demand for an immediate lifting of sanctions and condemned US and British attacks.

With Iraq largely off the agenda, ministers surprisingly devoted Sunday night's main closed session to the situation in Sudan.

An Arab diplomat in attendance said that Iraqi deferral of its agenda came on the promise of future Arab and Gulf support for lifting sanctions. One possible channel is the UN Security Council where several draft resolutions are now on the table regarding sanctions and weapon's inspections.

After a meeting on Monday between President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister Amr Moussa confirmed that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia "have no objections to lifting sanctions".

Al-Sahaf, talking to reporters, hoped that direct discussions on sanctions would begin soon. "The resolutions are not important. What we are concerned with is the attitude and policy of the Arab leaders towards Iraq and not their verbal statements. In this context we believe that the points of understanding are increasing and that we are heading towards creating mutual trust."

The harshly-worded statement following Saturday's Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was dismissed by Al-Sahaf as public diplomacy. "It is the real diplomacy that counts for us," he said. The GCC statement deemed the Iraqi regime responsible for the suffering of its people and requested that Baghdad implement fully all Security Council resolutions.

Al-Sahaf explained that although the Gulf countries have varying degrees of closeness in their relations with Iraq, nevertheless, "they have a common approach that is growing positive." He said that Iraq already trades with Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman, and that trade with Saudi Arabia in the framework of the UN oil-for-food programme last year amounted to $157 million.

As to whether Iraq was ready to apologise to Kuwait for the 1990 invasion, Al-Sahaf reiterated the Iraqi stance. This opposes concessions or an apology before a "frank and direct" Arab dialogue on the issue. "Setting pre-conditions on such dialogue only hinders efforts at reconciliation and the problem will never be solved."

During his address at the opening session, Al-Sahaf berated the US and Britain for their "aggressive attitude towards Iraq". He also pointed to US double standards in supporting and financing the Israeli arsenal of weapons of mass destruction while UN Resolution 687 stipulates that the destruction of Iraqi weapons is part of the process to make the Middle East free of such weapons.

The presence of the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat during the opening session highlighted the Palestinian issue. Arafat started his address by asking Al-Sahaf to deliver "personal greetings to our beloved President Saddam Hussein". He then reviewed the developments in the peace process following last week's signing of Wye II in Sharm Al-Sheikh. In preparation for the final-status talks which opened on Monday, Arafat affirmed that "there can be no peace without Jerusalem, free and as the capital of the Palestinian state".

He also stressed the right of more than three million Palestinian refugees to return to their "homeland Palestine" and his vehement opposition to settling them in Arab countries.

The meeting discussed a request by the United Arab Emirates to boycott US entertainment company Walt Disney for allowing Israel to participate in an exhibition marking the third millennium with a display entitled "Jerusalem the Capital of Israel".

Abdel-Meguid said the Arab ministers decided to send a delegation to visit the exhibition to ensure that the Israeli section would not be used to boost its claim over the city which is holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

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