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Iraq, Saudi Arabia appear to reconcile

©Associated Press
March 29, 2002

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In a setback to U.S. efforts to rally support for ousting Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia's crown prince kissed an Iraqi representative in greeting at an Arab summit Thursday, signaling a reconciliation for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq also made gestures toward Kuwait, the southern neighbor it invaded in 1990 to trigger the Gulf War, after more than 11 years of animosity.

The gestures came as Arab leaders meeting here opposed any U.S. military action against Iraq -- which Washington accuses of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring terrorists -- and called for an end to U.N. sanctions in place since the invasion of Kuwait.

A summit statement issued Thursday said "attacking Iraq or threatening the security and sovereignty of any Arab country ... is considered a threat to the national security of all Arab states."

The highlight of Iraq's day came when Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, head of the Iraqi delegation, and Abdullah embraced and kissed each other's cheeks in front of television cameras.

Al-Douri made a further traditional gesture to Abdullah by wearing a black abaya, a flowing cloak with embroidered gold trim, just like the Saudi crown prince wears. Such abayas are worn often by Gulf leaders, but al-Douri typically wears a military uniform or business suit.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was skeptical about whether the gestures had substance.

"The test is not whether Iraq shakes some hands or says some words. The test is whether Iraq demonstrates any kind of true respect for the countries of the region and the neighbors," he said.

"And I think we can be comfortable that the neighbors have enough experience with Iraq to know the value one should place on Iraqi promises."

Iraq and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, although they have held low-level meetings in recent years.

Still, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa welcomed the first step.

"In this calm atmosphere we can do a lot," he said. "There is a lot to be done."

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