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Iraq falls flat at Arab League

At Cairo meeting on Sunday, Arab leaders didn't respond to Iraqidemands for help.

The "Iraq dilemma" is not just the domain of American policymakers: Arab leaders, too, trying to forge their own unity, are increasingly frustrated by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Iraq's delegation walked away from an Arab League foreign ministers' meeting on Sunday, indicating a new degree of Iraqi isolation in the Arab world. The delegation protested that its two demands were not met: a strong condemnation of US-British airstrikes last month, and a concerted push to lift United Nations sanctions.

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While both those issues may be close to the hearts of Arabs regionwide, their leaders are also assessing the threat posed by Iraq and how to deal with it, and are encountering strong American pressure to take a tough line.

Meanwhile yesterday, the US fired missiles in both the northern and southern Iraq "no-fly" zones, according to the Pentagon. The Iraqi News Agency reported that there were civilian casualties near Basra in southern Iraq.

United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will visit Egypt on Wednesday, and then Saudi Arabia, diplomats say, to reaffirm the American position that UN sanctions must remain until there is a change of regime in Baghdad. To counter that hard line, other US plans could expand the oil-for-food deal to ease the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.

"[Arab leaders] are against US bombing, but they are also against Saddam Hussein, so how does that translate?" says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo.

"The US is calling the shots, but without a vision," he adds. For Arabs and the West alike, "the problem is that you know what you are against, but there is no vision about what to do. It is very frustrating."

The result was a statement from the 22-member Arab League that offered vague solidarity with the Iraqi people and "displeasure" over the airstrikes. But the statement also demanded that Iraq refrain from "provocative actions" against its neighbors and comply with UN resolutions.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Said al-Sahaf stormed out with evident anger, saying that the meeting had been "sabotaged" by US allies.

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"There were unbalanced ideas and it was clear to us that there was US pressure ... which led to a negative effect," Mr. Sahaf said.

At first, Arab League ministers were to meet just days after the Dec. 16-19 airstrikes, and there was talk of an emergency summit of leaders.

But the meeting was postponed - in part at the request of US allies Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which provided bases from which to strike Iraq and wanted to avoid an emotive vote in favor of Baghdad.

Failure to meet immediately underscored Arab divisions, says Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, an Egyptian political analyst. "For Arabs, when we see Saddam Hussein hit so harshly, and with no clear reason as to the timing, the fact that [we] don't come together for such an important moment is itself symbolic."

Since then, US officials in the region have lobbied Arab capitals, asking that Iraq be made to comply with UN resolutions before talk of lifting sanctions.

American diplomats "have been working the Arab leadership hard in the past several weeks," says a Western diplomat. "Saddam Hussein himself has opened the floodgates" by his own verbal attacks on other Arab states.

Of the meeting's outcome, US State Department spokesman James Foley said, "The walkout ... underscores Iraq's isolation in the Arab world."

But it played heatedly in the Arab press. Iraq's official Al-Qaddissiya called the result "shameful," and called on Arabs to confront "this new page of American and Zionist conspiracy."

In sharp contrast, Saudi Arabia's Okaz newspaper voiced an increasingly popular theme among Gulf states: "Arab countries will not find huge difficulty in reaching a final belief that dealing with Saddam Hussein is not just rejected, but has become impossible," the paper said. "The only way to protect the Iraqi people is to get rid of this regime."

Part of the conundrum for Arab leaders, analysts say, is that they want to bring Iraq back to the Arab fold, but they feel powerless to do so on their own terms and are undecided on what those terms could be.

"I don't believe that all the Arabs combined - even if they were unified - could do much to change the course of events regarding Iraq," says Mohamed el-Sayed Said, an analyst with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a semiofficial think tank in Cairo.

The meeting at least, he says, "sends a message to the Arab people that their governments are doing something to [reverse] the image of Arab impotence."

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