Arab nations likely will avoid participation in the postwar administration of Iraq, fearing a link to an eventual U.S. occupation would signal their acceptance of a war broadly opposed by their citizens, diplomats and analysts said.
Just before the start of the invasion of Iraq, diplomats, politicians and intellectuals from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia held a series of meetings to discuss how their governments could play a role in a reconstituted Iraq. However, two weeks into a war that is far more difficult and lengthy than many expected, the planning meetings have ended. Arab leaders now say they are unable to take a public or private role in rebuilding Iraq.
"It reminds me of the Palestinian conflict. We talk and talk, and then we don't get much done," said Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a columnist for the Cairo-based newspaper al-Ahram. "Meanwhile, the citizens of Iraq and the citizens of Palestine suffer, and we are still debating."
In newspaper commentary and in interviews, analysts here criticize Arab leaders for inaction.
"We are losing Iraq, just like we lost Palestine before, losing things will be a common phenomena for Arabs. It will be a trademark for Arabs and Muslims," wrote Fouad Mattar in Asharq Al Awsat, an independent London-based newspaper.
Some analysts also point to internal squabbles among Arab countries as a source of the problem, saying that the war should provide an opportunity to unite.
"Arab leaders hate each other so much that they can't even be in the same room together without mutual repulsion and cursing at each other," Sid-Ahmed said in a interview. "What most people don't or won't talk about is that Arab countries' relations with each other are worse, most of the time, than with United States or even Israel. Of course we can't get anything done."
Adding to the problem of devising a strategy to rebuild Iraq, analysts said, is the contradictory position many countries are taking as the war proceeds. The chief U.S. allies among Arab countries -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- publicly denounce the U.S. invasion, while providing logistical support to the U.S. military.
"Help the U.S. rebuild, Iraq? No. Any attempt to impose a regime on Iraq is not seen as a welcome step in this part of the world right now," said Nabil Osman, spokesman for Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, who defended his decision in a speech this week to permit U.S. warplanes to fly over Egyptian territory, even as he denounced the war.
Prince Saud Faisal the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, also rejected the notion of assisting the United States with the establishment of a provisional government if Saddam Hussein is overthrown.
"A military occupation is not a way to solve problems," he said at a weekly news conference in Riyadh. "The government should be decided by the Iraqi people."
The Saudi monarchy provides key support to the United States by allowing the Air Force to use its Prince Sultan air base, a huge facility 70 miles from Riyadh. Concerned about a public backlash against the war and fearful of inflaming Muslim extremists, the Saudis ban all publicity and photographs of the base.
In Jordan, officials and intellectuals say it is impossible for the country to help rebuild Iraq. Jordan has about 3,000 U.S. troops on its soil.
"Jordan is not in a good position right now to do anything," said Taher Masri, a former prime minister. "Iraq is being occupied. We can't help those occupiers take over and run an Arab nation."
Western diplomats in Cairo said, however, that they foresee an eventual role for Arab countries if Iraq is occupied by the United States. Despite misgivings expressed now, one diplomat said, the United States and Britain eventually will seek the help of Arab nations.
"It would be very useful and natural to have Arab hands in a post-conflict Iraq," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified. In Egypt, some government officials said that an advisory role would be useful in any post-war administration of Iraq. But the protracted war and the images of violence in Iraq make the prospects difficult to imagine. "It would have been very important both symbolically and in practice for an important nation like Egypt to play a real role in helping Iraq," said Mustafa Feqi, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the parliament. "But now, any American-administrated government is not going to be helped while our people watch all of the massacres committed on women and children. It's unfortunate, and it's sad."
Staff writer Carol Morello in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.