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Arab States Declare Allegiance to Iraq

Arab states solidly backed Iraq on Thursday in its showdown with the United States, which maintains Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is trying to build nuclear weapons.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said a U.S. attack against Saddam Hussein would "open the gates of hell in the Middle East."

The League's final resolution did not call on Iraq to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors, but Moussa said Iraq could dispel allegations it had broken promises made at the end of the Gulf War.

"We believe that the return of the inspectors ... would form an important step toward showing the world whether there is indeed a violation of the Security Council resolutions," Moussa told reporters.

The resolution at the two-day Arab League foreign ministerial meeting registered "total rejection of the threat of aggression on Arab nations, especially Iraq, reaffirming that these threats and any threat to the security and safety of any Arab country are considered a threat to Arab national security."

The unified Arab stance was a diplomatic coup for Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, who told reporters that all the Arab governments had expressed their "total rejection of the aggressive intentions of the United States."

The meeting, which ended Thursday, was held as the Bush administration continued threatening to attack Iraq to remove Saddam and wipe out his alleged program to build chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Saddam, at the end of the Gulf War, pledged to scrap the program.

Several Arab states had earlier expressed solidarity with Iraq but also called on it to allow the return of U.N. weapons inspectors as a way to defuse the crisis. The inspectors left in 1998 in advance of U.S. and British airstrikes against Iraq.

Iraq says it is ready to discuss the inspectors' return, but only in a broader context of lifting sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The United Nations has said the return of inspectors must come first, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has declined to hold further negotiations until inspections resume.

Trade sanctions against Iraq can only be lifted after the U.N. certifies the country has no weapons of mass destruction.

The Arab League rarely censures one of its own, and on Thursday was perhaps reluctant to be seen as siding with America. Arab governments have argued a U.S. attack on Iraq would lead to destabilizing protests among ordinary Arabs already angry at a United States for its perceived bias in favor of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian planning minister, told reporters an attack against Iraq would add to his problems, speculating Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would use the unrest as an excuse to crack down even harder on the Palestinians.

The ministers also called for an end to U.N. trade sanctions imposed to punish Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which was reversed with the 1991 Gulf War. Under U.N. resolutions, the sanctions cannot be lifted until Iraq satisfies the United Nations that it has destroyed or is not making nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

The United States, backed by Britain, has said it wants a "regime change" in Baghdad, but Washington says it has not yet decided whether to use military means to topple Saddam.

In Washington on Thursday, Army Secretary Thomas White said the United States recently doubled the size of its war stocks in Kuwait to accommodate a little-noticed expansion of U.S. armored forces at a base near the Iraqi border.

White said the Army is ready for whatever action President Bush chooses as he considers how to fulfill his administration's goal of removing Saddam from power. White said there were no orders to begin preparing for an invasion.