The Gulf Cooperation Council, the main alliance of Persian Gulf states, today failed to back an initiative by the United Arab Emirates demanding that President Saddam Hussein and his government in Iraq go into exile as a last chance to avoid a U.S.-led invasion.
The proposal has won tacit support from a growing number of Arab officials in the gulf and elsewhere. Four of the six council members -- Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, in addition to UAE -- have backed it publicly. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have endorsed it privately. But in a sign of the issue's sensitivity over the precedent it could set, the council said after a two-day meeting in Doha, Qatar, that the plan needed the support of the Arab League.
The Arab League effectively buried the UAE proposal by keeping it off its agenda during a summit conference Saturday. When the council failed to issue a decision today, the burial seemed complete.
"We think it needs to be discussed further in the Arab League," said Hamad Bin Jasim Thani, Qatar's foreign minister. "All the GCC agreed in principle that this is a very important initiative. There are no differences within the GCC about the UAE initiative." But, echoing others, he added: "There is a very slim chance that this war can be avoided."
Hussein has dismissed the prospect of exile. On the sidelines of the stormy Arab summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, his foreign minister, Naji Sabri, insisted the proposal was inspired by Israel and fit for the "garbage pail." Privately, Arab officials have cast doubt on its chance for success and have said it was aimed at demonstrating Hussein's dwindling support to the Iraqi public and provoking a last-minute coup d'etat from within Iraq's military.
Even as Arab states have called for a diplomatic solution, more and more are resigned to a war they believe the United States is determined to launch. Only a dramatic move like a coup d'etat, they said, could disrupt those plans.
"Saddam is not going to leave, plain and simple," a senior gulf region official said. "Short of that, try to find a solution."
But with the diminishing chances of avoiding a war, pivotal Arab governments such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been reluctant to lend their public support to the exile idea, officials said.
"Privately, there is overwhelming support for it, not just in the gulf, but throughout the region. It's been an idea floating around for a while now, probably a few months," another gulf official said. "It's just that backing it publicly is very difficult. It would set a precedent for the Arab League, for Arab countries to ask for the removal of another government."
In openly calling for the fall of a fellow Arab government, the UAE initiative marked a watershed in Arab politics. Analysts said it highlighted the anxiety in the region over a war that many leaders fear will unleash a backlash from people deeply resentful of U.S. policy.
Iraq's neighbors, in particular, fear U.S. officials are excessively optimistic in their assessment of what a war would mean for the region. Rather than being an engine for democratic change, they fear, the Iraqi government's overthrow could cause instability, raising the chances of civil war in one of the Arab world's most important countries and contributing to a dangerous escalation of anti-U.S. sentiment. "Even under the best scenarios, there will be a mess in the region," a senior Egyptian official said.