ISTANBUL, Turkey – Fearing war could trigger a crisis in the region, Iraq's neighbors urged Saddam Hussein on Thursday to cooperate fully with U.N. arms inspectors. They avoided any public call for the Iraqi leader to step down.
Foreign ministers of six countries urged Iraq to "confirm its commitment under relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions" to disarm and "embark on the policy that will unambiguously inspire confidence to Iraq's neighbors."
"The countries of this region do not wish to live through yet another war and all its devastating consequences," said a joint communique.
"We therefore solemnly call on the Iraqi leadership to move irreversibly and sincerely toward assuming their responsibilities in restoring peace and stability in the region."
The ministers from Turkey, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- urged Iraq to "demonstrate a more active approach" in providing information on its weapons programs "in full conformity" with U.N. resolutions.
However Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said there was no discussion of urging Saddam to step down to spare his country from war.
"It was not on our agenda. It has never been on our agenda," Yakis told a news conference.
The joint statement also urged Iraq to "respect internationally recognized boundaries," resolve outstanding issues with its neighbors and "take firm steps toward national reconciliation that would preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq."
Although the statement was directed primarily against Iraq, Iran's Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharazzi urged the United States against taking "unilateral action."
The idea of having this meeting here was to do our best to avoid such a situation that the U.S. may resort to a unilateral action," Kharazzi told reporters. "We have to stick to multilateralism and advise Americans to not resort to unilateral action."
It was unclear, however, what leverage the participants would have with the Iraqi leadership. But the six nations each have reasons for averting war.
Turkey is NATO's only Muslim member and has longtime defense ties with the United States. Washington has asked Turkey to allow U.S. troops on its soil for possible military action, but polls show Turks overwhelmingly oppose armed conflict.
The Saudis fear that the overthrow of Saddam's Baath Party administration would strengthen Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community. That could lead to close ties between Shiites in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- to the detriment of the ruling House of Saud.
Iran fears that Saddam would be replaced by a strongly pro-American government. Both Iran and Turkey also would like assurances from each other not to exploit the chaos of war by moving troops into border areas of Iraq.
"It is harmful to us if the region becomes turbulent," an Iranian foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity. "We have suffered a lot from crises in the region. We're afraid of war."
Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, maintains close business ties with Iraq and fears a long war would destroy its economy.
Turkey worries that a post-Saddam government could grant greater powers to Iraq's minority Kurds. That could lead to similar demands for greater power by Turkey's own Kurdish population.
Syria and Egypt fear that the end of Baghdad's Baathist regime might undermine their own governments, which have been criticized for authoritarian ways.
Egypt's assistant foreign minister, Mahmoud Mubarak, said the conference had "only one item on the agenda and that is how to help Iraq avoid a military strike."
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said the meeting's message was a "rejection of a military action."
"The open message and the closed message is peace, no war."
All the countries present, except Jordan and Iran, were part of the 1991 Gulf War coalition that drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Kuwait, which is hosting a large number of U.S. troops preparing for a possible war, was not invited.
"The conference wants to offer advice to Iraq, and Kuwait has no intention to advise a country it has no ties with," said Massouma al-Mubarak, a political science professor at Kuwait University.
Kuwait's government has also expressed hope the Iraq crisis can be resolved peacefully.