After Fractious Meeting, Arab Leaders Say They Oppose War on Iraq

Arab leaders said they reject a war on Iraq and U.S. threats to remove Saddam Hussein, but their message Saturday was undermined by exchanges of insults and sharp divisions at a summit aimed at finding unity over the Iraq crisis.

Highlighting the splits, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nation to propose publicly that Saddam step down to avert a war. When other leaders refused to discuss the idea, the Emirati information minister grumbled that the Arab League "didn't have the courage."

Near the close of the one-day summit, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah angrily insulted each other. Live broadcast of the session halted soon after, and other leaders had to convince Abdullah not to quit the meeting, diplomats said.

A final statement issued after the summit's close expressed "complete rejection of any aggression on Iraq" and urged more time for inspections.

It said Arab countries should refrain from carrying out any military action against Iraq. But it did not address Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar's hosting of tens of thousands of U.S. troops who would likely participate if the United States launches an invasion.

Leaders had come into the 22-member Arab League summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik already deeply split.

Some countries — particularly in the Persian Gulf — argue war is inevitable and say the region should be planning for the aftermath. A second camp, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, insist war can be avoided if Iraq cooperates fully with U.N. weapons inspectors. A third camp — led by Syria — wanted the summit to make an unequivocal anti-war declaration.

The final statement made no mention of ideas floated before the session for sending a delegation to Baghdad to deliver a message to Saddam — either vaguely suggesting he quit or pressing him to cooperate with inspectors.

Instead, the statement said Arab leaders agreed to form a committee to "explain the Arab position" to the United Nations and to consult with Iraq. It said U.N. weapons inspectors should be given enough time to carry out their mission.

The communique added political change in the Arab world "is a matter to be decided by the people of the region according to national interests, away from outside interference."

UAE President Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan proposed that Arab states press Saddam and his leadership to give up power in exchange for immunity from prosecution. He proposed Iraq be governed by the Arab League and the United Nations until it could return to "its normal situation."

Iraqi delegates in a closed session of the summit reacted angrily to the proposal, diplomats said. In New York, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Al-Douri, dismissed the UAE proposal as "silly."

"This is really silly talk," he told The Associated Press, adding that Saddam wasn't going anywhere.

Some Arab officials have privately supported the idea of pushing Saddam into exile. But league leaders had said the summit would not take up the idea, citing league rules barring interference in members' domestic affairs.

During an open session, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam's top deputy, ignored the proposal and accused the United States of wanting to destroy and colonize the Arab world.

The Iraqi delegation appeared content with the final declaration. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said it communique showed strong political support for Iraq.

A U.S. ally, Sheik Zayed issued his proposal one day after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the only way for Iraq to avoid war is "disarmament and regime change." Sheik Zayed, in his 80s and in poor health, did not attend the summit but sent his vice president with a letter with the proposal.

In contrast, Syrian President Bashar Assad, during the summit's opening session, accused the United States of seeking to secure Iraq's "oil and redraw the region's map and destroy Iraq's infrastructure."

"We are all targeted ... we are all in danger," Assad said.

Later, Gadhafi, a sharp critic of what he calls lack of Arab unity, said in his speech that Saudi Arabia had formed "an alliance with the devil" when it asked U.S. troops to protect it from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

Abdullah interrupted angrily from across the room, calling Gadhafi "an agent for colonizers."

"Don't talk or get involved in things which are not your business," Abdullah told the Libyan.

After weeks of intense talks and negotiations leading up to the summit, which was pushed forward from late March to address the rising risk of war in Iraq, it was the confrontation between Libya and Saudi Arabia that captured most Arabs' attention.

In Tripoli, the Libyan capital, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets Saturday evening, headed for the Saudi Arabian Embassy. They tried to break in but were dispersed by riot police using tear gas and batons.

In Saudi Arabia, Khaled al-Maeena, editor of Arab News, said he was "shocked, appalled and saddened" by the feud.

"I felt embarrassed," he said. "In front of the world we've become a laughing stock. The Arab people are disappointed and confused."

"The spat took the steam off the main thrust, which was the Iraq issue," he added.