ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey said Tuesday it will host a regional peace meeting in Istanbul, reflecting the deep reservations that Iraq's neighbors have in supporting a U.S.-led war.
The foreign ministers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Egypt and Jordan are to attend the meeting scheduled for Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said.
"A storm is coming, a fire is raging toward our countries," Yakis said. "Let's do what is possible to stop it."
The ministers are expected to discuss ways to persuade Iraq to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors — but not proposals to push Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to accept exile, Yakis said. U.S. officials have said they would welcome Saddam seeking exile, saying it could avert military action.
"We definitely don't have regime change or sending Saddam into exile on our agenda," Yakis said.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia also said Tuesday that the meeting would not seek to press Saddam to step down.
"Talk about amnesty or an exile is something that should be determined by the Iraqi people," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said.
A regional meeting would be a chance for Iraq's neighbors to show Saddam that he is surrounded and has no choice but to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors — and to show Washington that they can only support a war if all other options are exhausted.
Turkey will also get a chance to show its own people that it is trying to avoid a clash that most Turks believe will destabilize the area and harm their country's fragile economic recovery. Recent polls indicate that more than 80 percent of Turks are against a conflict.
"For the future of humanity and civilization, all decision makers should give an ear to calls for peace rising in the world," said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party.
"It is possible to achieve it (peace), especially if the United States contributes to it," Erdogan said.
The meeting is expected to be followed by a second gathering of Iraq's neighbors in Damascus, Syria. Turkish officials said that that meeting could take place a few days after the Istanbul meeting.
The United States has been pressing Turkey, a close ally, to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish bases for a possible northern front against Iraq.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Turkey Monday to discuss military cooperation, and another top U.S. general is scheduled to visit Friday.
Turkey has been reluctant to accept the deployment of a U.S. invasion force that could be as large as 80,000 troops and has suggested that it could only accept a far smaller force. The northern force would be in addition to the main U.S. deployment in the Gulf.
In Washington, officials said Tuesday it was possible that part or all of a 37,000-strong task force, ordered to deploy in the Gulf region, would go to Turkey. Officials said that an agreement was in the works to permit basing of roughly 20,000 troops here.
Turkey depends on the United States for political and economic support, and most Turks believe that if the United States does go to war, Turkey will have no choice but to back Washington.