Six Middle Eastern countries issued a joint appeal to Iraq today "to demonstrate a more active approach" toward U.N. weapons inspectors in what diplomats said was a faint hope of slowing the momentum toward war.
The appeal -- by the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan -- placed the onus for avoiding conflict clearly on Iraq. It avoided any mention of the United States or widespread criticism of President Bush's stated willingness to prosecute a war even without a new U.N. Security Council resolution.
"The message was more directed at Iraq," said Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis. "We did not want to dilute this message and the emphasis of the message.
"You are right to wonder what message is there for the United States," Yakis added. "But at this point, until the drafting and submission of the inspectors' report, our task should be to urge the Iraqi authorities to comply fully."
In remarks at a news conference, other senior diplomats made clear that the Bush administration was also a target of the statement. "The open message and the hidden message is this: The six countries agree that our message and our solidarity is with a peaceful solution and the rejection of military action," said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa.
"We have to stick to multilateralism and urge the United States not to resort to unilateralism," said Kamal Kharrazi, the foreign minister of Iran. "The United Nations system has to be the center of any decision to be made."
The joint declaration made no mention of avoiding conflict by luring President Saddam Hussein into exile or urging his lieutenants to rise up against him. The diplomats said these topics were not even discussed on the gathering's sidelines, and the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, erupted at reporters who surrounded him after the news conference, pressing the issue.
"I am not in the business of organizing coups d'etat!" he said. "It's none of my business!"
Conceived by Turkish leaders a week ago as a gathering of heads of the nations that Prime Minister Abdullah Gul had visited in a whirlwind peace tour earlier this month, the meeting today was downgraded to a ministers' meeting to prepare a later summit. Tonight, after delegates tussled behind closed doors over efforts to include language upbraiding the United States or citing the cause of the Palestinians, the summit was put off indefinitely.
"It's hard to be optimistic," said a Saudi diplomat. "Unless something happens to Saddam -- he steps down, gets away and saves his country. Everything is possible at the last moment."
The diplomat said Hussein had learned from the Persian Gulf War in 1991 that if the United States puts a military force in place, it will indeed use it. "He's not expected to misread the situation this time," the Saudi said.
Iraq's neighbors cited concerns about the economic fallout of a possible war in Iraq, and the suffering of the country's civilian population. But each country had its own set of fears.
The Saudis, leaders of Islam's Sunni branch, fear that Hussein's ruling Baath Party will be replaced by forces from Iraq's Shiite majority. That may please Shiite Iran, but like Syria and -- especially -- Turkey, Iran harbors apprehensions that its own population of ethnic Kurds may find common cause with Kurds in Iraq before or after the chaos of war.
Those fears produced a section in the joint declaration urging Iraq "to embark on a policy that will unambiguously inspire confidence to Iraq's neighbors, and to respect internationally recognized boundaries."