The Arab states of the Persian Gulf today declared a new position of apparently strict neutrality in the war between Iran and Iraq and pledged to redouble their efforts to bring the conflict to a quick end.
Ignoring Iraq's pleas for greater support from its fellow Arabs, foreign ministers of the six oil-rich monarchies ended a two-day emergency meeting with a call for a negotiated peace settlement "guaranteeing the legitimate rights of both parties."
Western and Arab observers here said it was the first time they could recall that the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates--had formally recognized that Iran as well as Iraq had legitimate claims in the 20-month-old war.
The statement was the council's first official reaction to the latest Iranian victories in the war. Caught between escalating threats from non-Arab Iran and increasingly strong pleas for help from Baghdad, the council members apparently decided to strike a neutral stand at least publicly in hopes of improving their relations with Iran.
Diplomatic sources here said Saudi Arabia and the five other gulf monarchies hope to enlist the aid of Turkey and Pakistan in their peace efforts, making use of those countries' better relations and access to persuade the Iranians to negotiate.
Today's declaration came only one day after Iraq asked all Arab states to break diplomatic ties with Iran, following official disclosure that Israel had sold $27 million worth of spare parts and weapons to Tehran.
The final statement not only said nothing about such action but also gave no hint of more support for the embattled government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The six gulf states already have loaned Saddam Hussein about $24 billion to finance the war.
The emergency gulf council meeting was called to deal with the sudden collapse of Iraqi forces fighting inside Iran and their hasty retreat from most of the land and cities they occupied during the first months of the conflict.
Saddam Hussein launched the war in September, 1980 to impose Iraq's control over the Shatt-al-Arab, the waterway that runs between the two countries and is the main Iraqi access to the Persian Gulf. He also hoped to end what he claimed were Iranian subversive activities against his government.
Iraq is still faced by the same Iranian threat, but it and the gulf states are in a much weaker position. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. said last week that the war held "ominous implications" for the security of the region and for Western interests. He pledged a "more active role" for the United States in seeking a negotiated solution to prevent the war from spilling into neighboring states and upsetting the regional balance of power.
Following adjournment of the council meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Faisal flew to Amman for talks with Jordanian authorities. He reportedly planned to go next to Turkey.
Saudi Arabia, involved in a bitter dispute with the Islamic revolutionary government in Tehran, is hardly in a position to exercise a moderating influence on it. In addition, the Iranian leaders have been warning the gulf Arab states to end their support for Iraq or suffer the consequences. The Iranians now openly say Saddam Hussein must be overthrown before they will end the war.
Today's statement seemed a masterpiece of linguistic neutrality, with the emphasis placed on the high cost in men and materiel to both Islamic countries and the need to bring the war to a quick end to preserve the region from outside interference.
In a veiled rebuke to Syria, which has been a leading supporter of Iran among the Arab states, the statement also noted that a unified Arab stand was a "basic factor" for halting the conflict.
Syria has recently rallied the support of Algeria, Libya, South Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organization for the Iranian side and has been resisting efforts of some moderate states to hold a special Arab League meeting on the war.
Despite the neutral tone of the final communique of the council's meeting here, there was no sign that the six nations intended to end their aid for Iraq. Most observers here doubted they would totally abandon the Saddam Hussein government.