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Arab nations appear unable to form consensus on Iraq

DOHA, Qatar—The world's largest Islamic group will hold an emergency meeting Wednesday in Qatar to discuss how to handle the looming war with Iraq.

The 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference won't officially discuss a controversial proposal urging Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to step down. But representatives from some Persian Gulf countries will try informally to build support for the idea.

The United Arab Emirates stirred controversy Saturday by becoming the first Arab nation to suggest that Saddam relinquish power to avoid war. The idea was largely ignored at the Arab League meeting over the weekend in Egypt, but it gained support from six Persian Gulf nations who met Monday in Qatar.

Qatar officials have called the proposal "an important initiative" and are working quietly with UAE delegates to sell it to a broader group. Both countries are reluctant to request a resolution, fearing that if it fails, that would expose long-standing fractures in the Arab and Islamic world.

Most analysts, including Arab observers, don't expect the Islamic conference to endorse the resolution.

"Arab unity has become a charade and will remain a charade," said Arab News, a prominent newspaper in Saudi Arabia.

Iraqi officials, including top Saddam aide Izzat Ibrahim Douri—the deputy chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, who is wanted in Austria on war crimes charges—are expected to attend. Iraq has angrily rejected the proposal, calling it a tool of Israel.

Turkey also has sent delegates, who probably will face questions about Ankara's lingering debate over whether to allow U.S. troops into the country to prepare for a possible Iraqi invasion. Turkish officials who arrived Tuesday in Doha said they didn't know whether there would be a second vote to allow the troops.

"Nothing is set," said Huseyin Avni Karsliogou, special secretary to the prime minister. "Everything is up in the air."

Officials from host-nation Qatar hope the Islamic conference will send a strong message to Baghdad and Washington to avoid war. But Western diplomats say they expect only the "bland statements" that have resulted from other recent Arab meetings marred by arguments, which called for Iraq to cooperate with U.N. inspectors and urged Western powers to avoid war.

"You're never going to get a strong opinion in favor or against, because there are so many diverse opinions," said one diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Arab world is split over how to handle the United States' showdown with Iraq. Some nations, such as Kuwait, think war will happen and that the focus should be planning for the aftermath. Egypt and Saudi Arabia want to push Saddam to cooperate with U.N. inspectors. Others, including Syria—the only Arab country with a vote on the U.N. Security Council—continue voicing strong support for Iraq.

Many leaders in the region, most of whom weren't democratically elected, oppose the UAE proposal for Saddam to step down, viewing it as interference in another country's affairs.

The Islamic conference's deputy secretary, Abdelaziz Abou Gousha, wouldn't comment on the proposal Tuesday, and said it hadn't been formally introduced. The only agenda items are debating the U.N. resolutions calling for Iraq to disarm and discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gousha, a Palestinian, said any efforts at achieving lasting peace in the Middle East would be futile without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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

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