As the U.S. puts the finishing touches on its plans to invade Iraq, the exertions of Middle East governments to avoid war are intensifying. Top regional officials, including Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, are jetting from capital to capital in a last-ditch drive to head off the conflict. "If they can push [Iraqi strongman] Saddam to really abide by the inspection process without playing games, they might gain time," says Abdel Moneim Said Aly, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Middle East leaders know that any U.N. reprieve is likely to be temporary, however. At a time when President George W. Bush is having trouble persuading Americans and Europeans that his campaign against Saddam Hussein is necessary, he may be winning the argument in the Arab world. Its leaders are increasingly writing off Saddam as a dangerous anachronism who threatens to bring disaster -- from possible spillover of a conflict to a Muslim backlash at home -- down on them. Worried about the consequences of war, they're also trying -- with mixed success -- to cool other points of friction with the U.S., such as feverish oil prices and Palestinian suicide attacks on Israel.
Recent comments from Saudi Arabia that the kingdom wants to see Saddam step down or ousted are an unmistakable sign of this new thinking. One well-informed Saudi explains that the Arabs are mounting a political offensive that dovetails with the military buildup of the U.S. The hope, he says, is that influential Iraqis get the message and act before it's too late. "The Arabs exploring this agenda have caught on to the fact that what's at stake is regime change [not weapons of mass destruction]," says Rosemary Hollis, director of the Middle East program at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Regime change brought about peacefully would likely suit Arab and Turkish tastes. Turkey's new Prime Minister Abdullah Gul is in an especially dicey position. Not only do some 80% of Turks oppose an attack on Iraq but such a move would strain his Justice & Development Party, which has Islamic roots.
A peaceful transition to new leadership isn't likely to bring about the major transformation that the U.S. desires in Iraq or the Middle East -- and there's the rub for Washington. While Saddam would be gone, Iraq's security apparatus and other levers of power would probably remain, preserving something close to the status quo. Such a government is also likely to frustrate the designs of some Washington policymakers to use Iraq's oil wealth to smash the OPEC cartel.
Still, the U.S. is cautiously welcoming this Saudi initiative so far. On Jan. 19, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld endorsed amnesty for senior Iraqi figures. If the danger of war continues to grow, the Saudis and others are likely to play up these calls for Saddam's ouster.
Most analysts are skeptical that Iraqis can be persuaded to take the huge risks required to move against Saddam. But some close observers of Iraq think a carefully tailored offer of amnesty for Saddam's inner circle -- plus guarantees to businessmen that they could keep their assets if they supported an effort to oust the Iraqi strongman -- might shatter the dictator's already stressed regime. Dangling such a deal in front of the Iraqi elite, who are now preoccupied with saving themselves and their wealth, "would split the ruling class and make Saddam terribly lonely," says Faleh A. Jabar, a London-based Iraqi sociologist.
At this point, the region's leaders think it would take a miracle to avoid war. The Middle East players are as much trying to manage the conflict's aftermath as prevent an attack on Iraq. Worried that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might use the invasion as cover to intensify his own campaign against Palestinian militants, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is trying to bring the Palestinian factions to an agreement to halt suicide bombings.
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And the Saudis are pumping oil at close to a flat-out rate to try to stop a dangerous price spiral. Crown Prince Abdullah has announced a reform initiative that, Saudi sources say, may include an elected consultative council in the kingdom.
These leaders believe that Saddam is toast. Now they're trying to do at least enough to persuade Washington that their countries aren't failed or failing states that need American fixing as well.
By Stanley Reed in London
Edited by Rose Brady