Arab Ministers Meet to Map Iraq Strategy

Amid warnings that war remained a possibility even after Iraqi pledges of cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors, Arab foreign ministers Wednesday sought to reach a common position on the U.S.-Iraq standoff.

Wednesday's discussions in the Syrian capital Damascus, which also will chart a unified position on a U.S.-backed plan to calm Palestinian-Israeli violence, were informal for most of the day. An official meeting of Arab League foreign ministers convened Wednesday night and another session was expected Thursday.

Initially, the two-day session was expected to be by a 10-member league committee, but it was expanded to include other Arab countries. Those attending represented Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Oman, Libya and the league.

Since the ministers met in Cairo about two weeks ago, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has accepted the new U.N. disarmament resolution and international inspectors have arrived in Iraq to begin their search for banned weapons.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told Syrian television that the ministers wanted to stress their view that the Iraq crisis should end peacefully "so that the people of Iraq be spared a military strike and the international community be satisfied to see Iraq fulfill its commitments."

While Saddam's acceptance of weapons inspectors has calmed the atmosphere, Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud expressed fears shared by many Arabs that a U.S. war against Iraq was inevitable.

"The [U.S.] strike has been decided and discussions are centering on efforts on how to delay it as much as possible," he was quoted Tuesday as telling the Lebanese daily As-Safir in an interview.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said Wednesday that Iraq's acceptance of the U.N. disarmament resolution and its cooperation with weapons inspectors "has reduced the chances of war but did not completely dispel it." He called for continued efforts to settle the matter by political means.

Adding to tensions, Washington said Tuesday it will not let Iraq continue to fire on U.S. and British warplanes patrolling two "no-fly" zones in southern and northern Iraq even if the United Nations does not consider the shootings a justification for war. The fighter jets, which provide protection for Iraq's Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north, have often come under fire and responded by striking at what it considered threatening Iraqi air defenses.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa sidestepped questions about the Arab stand on the "no-fly" zones and whether they could be used as a pretext by Washington to strike at Iraq. The U.N. disarmament Resolution 1441 does not cover the issue and does not call for war, he said.

Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Mubarak, meanwhile, called on the U.N. to be neutral in its weapons inspection program in Iraq and said U.N. resolutions should be implemented with "honesty, objectivity and transparency" in order to spare the region war and dangers.

A flurry of diplomatic activity preceded the Damascus meetings. Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose country joined voting for the unanimous Security Council resolution on Iraq's disarmament, visited Bahrain and Saudi Arabia Sunday and hosted his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, in Damascus Monday.

On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Arab peace efforts have so far centered on the proposal initiated by Saudi Arabia that offered Israel peace with normal relations in return for withdrawal from occupied land.

U.S. envoys visiting the region recently have pushed for a new so-called "road map" for peace, formulated by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, which envisages a Palestinian state being set up in three stages and living at peace with Israel.

Muasher told reporters that it is important for Arabs to work on trying to improve the "road map" plan by seeking changes before its adoption next month.