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6 Persian Gulf nations call for Saddam to step down, avoid war

DOHA, Qatar—A group of six Persian Gulf nations Monday supported a United Arab Emirates proposal calling on Saddam Hussein to step down on the "slim chance" that war can be avoided.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, backed the proposal at a meeting in Doha, the Qatari capital. It likely will be discussed again Wednesday when the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference meets here.

The proposal is an "important initiative," said Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al Thani, but it's different from U.S.-led efforts aimed at ousting Saddam.

"It is not an intervention in the affairs of the country," he said. "It is a request to the Iraqi leadership. Regime change cannot be undertaken without Iraqi people involved themselves."

Iraqi officials have sneered at the proposal, calling it a tool of Israel. Iraq's most influential newspaper, Babel, which is run by Saddam's oldest son, Uday, denounced the suggestion as coming from an "American agent with an Arab face."

"The one who calls for ousting the Iraqi president and placing Iraq under the mandate of the United Nations and the Arab League is an American agent with an Arab face and a devil's heart," the paper said.

Asking Saddam to leave power, first suggested Saturday at an Arab summit, underscores the deep divisions in the Arab world over the United States' showdown with Iraq. Egypt and other countries want to push Saddam to cooperate with U.N. inspectors while others, including Syria—the only Arab state with a vote on the U.N. Security Council—continue to voice strong support for Iraq.

The GCC leaders also vowed Monday not to use the threat of an oil embargo, as Malaysia suggested last week, to exert anti-war pressure on Western leaders. "This (oil) is not a weapon, we should use it to improve relations between us and the others," al Thani said.

The Arab leaders later met with European Union foreign ministers to discuss improving economic cooperation. Afterward, Greece's George Papandreou, the president of the European Union, agreed with al Thani that there is a "slim chance" of avoiding war.

"There is still a small window of opportunity if Saddam Hussein is to make a dramatic move on compliance and particularly disarmament," Papandreou said. "A slim chance means there is still a chance."


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