CAIRO, Egypt – Saddam Hussein's top officials are making a swing through Arab capitals to counter Vice President Dick Cheney's argument during his own Mideast tour that the time had come for a regime change in Iraq.
In Egypt and Bahrain, the Iraqis shadowed Cheney, arriving hours after he departed. In other countries, they beat him to his next stop, but left before his arrival. They also toured nations not on Cheney's itinerary, like Syria and Morocco.
Arguing that Arab governments should not support a U.S. strike on Iraq, they appeared to be preaching to the converted as they traveled from Africa's Atlantic coast to the Arabian deserts. The Iraqi envoys — Izzat Ibrahim, Taha Yassin Ramadan, Tariq Aziz and Saadoun Hamadi — are the four most important officials in Saddam's regime.
During an 11-nation tour that ended Wednesday, Cheney sounded out Arab leaders on plans to widen the U.S. war on terror beyond Afghanistan to include Iraq. He heard the same words at virtually every Arab stop: Don't strike Iraq to remove Saddam.
In the Iraqi charm offensive, experts say Baghdad is trying to court Kuwait, the small oil-rich Gulf nation it invaded in 1990, and strengthen the widely accepted view that deposing Saddam would threaten regional stability by breaking up Iraq into a Kurdish north, a Shiite Muslim south and a majority Sunni Muslim center.
Officials are also capitalizing on the economic importance of Iraq's imports from countries like Egypt, Syria and Jordan. These nations could earn even more from trade with Iraq if U.N. sanctions are lifted. Supporting attacks against Baghdad could put such opportunities at risk.
"The Iraqis were definitely shadowing Cheney to demonstrate the superior rationale of the Iraqi position over the U.S. position," said Eugene Rogan, director of Oxford University's Middle East Center in England.
"For one thing, they are arguing that it would be very difficult to control the [regional] consequences of military action," said Rogan, an American.
Experts say a U.S.-led military campaign to oust Saddam and replace him with a pro-Western regime would also set a dangerous precedent in a region where most leaders are either monarchs with absolute powers, military dictators or civilian leaders who won office through flawed electoral systems, experts said.
Kuwaiti analyst Ayed al-Mannah warned that a U.S. attempt to oust Saddam would provide a "model to be followed" elsewhere in the Middle East.
Some Arab leaders have hinted that their objection to attacking Iraq may have to do more with timing than principle. Speaking Monday on CNN's Larry King Live, Jordan's King Abdullah II said:
"I strongly believe that right now, action [against Iraq] would be a mistake because you don't know the end result and with the crisis going on with the Palestinians and the Israelis, I don't think the Middle East would handle any sort of strike."
Ibrahim, the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, said in Bahrain this week that more than a decade after the 1990 invasion, Iraq and Kuwait should let bygones be bygones.
"It runs contrary to logic, reason and pragmatism for Iraq to threaten Kuwait," Ibrahim said. "It's [in] Iraq's interest that Kuwait enjoys stability and feels secure in its borders."
Kuwait, which relied on U.S.-led forces to end the seven-month long Iraqi occupation in 1991, appeared unimpressed by Baghdad's latest overtures.
Saudi Arabia, whose territory was also invaded by Iraq and hit by its Scud missiles in 1991, is the only Gulf Arab nation besides Kuwait with no direct contacts with Baghdad.
"The leaders of the Iraqi regime are free to say what they want. They are free to exchange roles, to maneuver, to paint the victim as executioner and vice versa," Kuwaiti Information Minister Sheik Ahmed Fahd Al Ahmed Al Sabah said in an interview published Wednesday in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-Amm.
"As for us in Kuwait, we cannot be bitten by the same snake twice. Playing smart will not benefit [Iraq] because the only way out for Iraq is implementing international resolutions."
President Bush would agree. He has labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea as members of an "axis of evil" and warned Saddam that he faces unspecified consequences if he fails to allow U.N. arms inspectors back into Iraq.
The inspectors must verify that Iraq has dismantled its arsenal of mass-destruction weapons to see sweeping U.N. sanctions imposed in 1990 lifted.
Baghdad calls the inspectors spies. Ramadan, the Iraqi vice president, said recently that the aim of their return would be "to refresh their data on Iraq so that the next strike will be more harmful than the previous ones."