Some Persian Gulf countries have broken ranks with other Arabs and publicly said Saddam Hussein should go into exile. Others question the ethics of calling for a new regime, but Arab diplomats say privately the idea of getting the Iraqi leader to step down is worth discussing.

In a letter to a weekend Arab summit in Egypt, the Emirates' widely respected president, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, became the first Arab leader to say publicly what until now had only been whispered in closed-door government meetings and debated in coffeehouses around the Arab world: Saddam should step down and go into exile to spare his people and the region.

Following a cool reception in Egypt — Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the issue wasn't replacing Saddam, but ensuring through U.N. inspections that Iraq is disarmed — the Emirates raised it again at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha, Qatar.

Council members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the Emirates said Monday they could not endorse the proposal without pan-Arab backing. It was clear, though, that the Gulf states liked the idea. The king of Bahrain said he backs the call for Saddam to go, according to the Emirates state news agency. Kuwait's Cabinet also backed the measure, the official Kuwaiti news agency said.

"It is a very important initiative, but we have to discuss it further. ... This has to be discussed among all the Arab states to see how this can be implemented," Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, told reporters Monday.

Also Monday, Iraq figured high on the agenda in a joint meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the European Union in Doha. For now, the EU is staying out of the debate over whether Saddam should leave, an EU diplomat said. Nonetheless, a joint EU-Gulf statement took note of the Emirates initiative, a step short of endorsement but diplomatically significant.

Gulf states have traditionally been conservative team players in the Arab world, rarely making waves on larger international issues.

But Iraq's Gulf neighbors have decided they must either do something themselves or be overwhelmed by events. The call for Saddam to step down is unlikely to result in his peaceful exit, but it could mean those countries will be taken more seriously in discussions about Iraq's future likely to be directed by the United States.

One group of prominent Iraqi dissidents said a post-Saddam Iraq should be ruled by the United Nations, not the U.S. military, while Iraqis prepare to govern themselves democratically. The Emirates proposal called for the United Nations and the Arab League to handle the transition.

"The role of the United Nations and the Arab League would be very comforting for the Iraqi people, who would prefer an international and Arab involvement than an outright military occupation," said Adnan Pachachi, a leading Iraqi dissident who was foreign minister in the government toppled by Saddam's Baath Party in a 1968 coup. Pachachi lives in the Emirates and has acted as an adviser to Sheik Zayed.

Gulf states hesitant about full endorsement of the initiative are worried about the response from other Arab countries opposed to setting a precedent by calling for the removal of a fellow Arab leader.

Arab diplomats on the sidelines of the summit in Egypt privately said the idea of getting Saddam to step down has been under discussion, but few thought it was time for a formal offer.

An Arab diplomat said on condition of anonymity that the Emirates proposal was "one way to avert a devastating war in the region," but that it would be useless to make an offer Saddam was sure to reject.

The U.A.E. delegate said Gulf countries were still pushing the proposal behind the scenes.

"We must wait and see if it receives the blessing of other Arab countries," a Saudi delegate to the Gulf meeting said on condition of anonymity.

U.A.E. information minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who floated the idea at the Arab League summit on behalf of his father, told The Associated Press the idea was "aimed at saving the Iraqi leadership, protecting the Iraqi people and the region from a devastating war. It should not be seen as an insult to anyone."