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Leaders of Arab nations urge Baghdad to comply with U.N.

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt—Seeking unity over a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq, the 22 countries of the Arab League held a fractious meeting in this Red Sea resort Saturday.

An explosive exchange of insults between Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah temporarily halted proceedings after Gadhafi accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to American interests in the Persian Gulf.

A proposal by the United Arab Emirates calling on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to surrender power and leave Iraq in exchange for amnesty on alleged crimes against his own people made a bigger splash in news conferences outside the conference hall than in it.

In the end, Arab leaders agreed to a compromise, which expressed "complete rejection of any aggression on Iraq," while urging Baghdad to comply with the United Nations requirement that it surrender any weapons of mass destruction.

The statement said Arab countries should refrain from carrying out any military action against Iraq, but did not speak directly about countries, including Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, which are hosting thousands of U.S. troops in anticipation of a possible invasion of Iraq.

In addition, the League said it would form a committee, headed by Bahrain, to explain, and possibly visit, the five permanent-member nations of the U.N. Security Council, "to explain the Arab position."

The Emirates' proposal marked the first time an Arab nation has openly called for Saddam's ouster. At an impromptu news conference in the League's outdoor media center, the UAE information minister said Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were supportive of the idea, but other League members "lacked the courage" to discuss it.

Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa, in a concluding news conference, told reporters the concept never got beyond the idea stage "because there was no desire to discuss it. Full stop."

Moussa said the flare-up between Libya and Saudi Arabia reflected "a difference in opinion over historical analysis" about U.S.-Saudi relations.

"But when we came to the issue of war against Iraq there was no disagreement," Moussa said.

Later, an angry Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters the idea of Saddam's ouster was not debated because "the summit does not discuss silly, dirty, trivial ideas." Without elaborating, he said the United States and Israel were the actual authors of the idea.

Throughout the day, many Arab leaders were highly critical of Israel. The final statement calls for Israel to be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction too, a reference to its presumed possession of nuclear weapons, although Israel has never confirmed that.

In a videotaped statement, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said, "The Israeli government is the first instigator of war against Iraq."

Israel has supported the United States in its belief that regime change in Iraq could reshape the map of the Middle East, recalibrate the balance of power and open the way for democracy in the region.

Saturday's one-day meeting was preceded by weeks of debate among Arab foreign ministers over when, where and whether to hold an "emergency" summit.

Fearing they would not be able to agree on a unified statement, some members thought it best not to move up the annual meeting, which was supposed to take place at the end of March in Bahrain.

Deep divisions cleaved the group into three camps: including Syria and Lebanon, which said the League should rally around Iraq in the face of perceived U.S. aggression; Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which held that war could be averted if Baghdad cooperates with U.N. inspectors and fully disarms, and Kuwait and Qatar, which said that war appeared inevitable and the League should focus on a future Iraq without Saddam.

Saturday's compromise statement sought to paper over those differences.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.