March 1, 2003
SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt -- Arab leaders said Friday they can't ask one of their own, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, to leave office, despite advice from the United States and the feeling among many in the region that it's the only way to avert war.
Privately, however, Arab diplomats said the idea has been under informal discussion ahead of an Arab League summit that convenes today.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has urged Arab leaders to emerge from their summit with a call for Hussein to "step down and get out of the way and let some responsible leadership take over in Baghdad."
But Egypt, which was the main force behind moving up the annual summit of Arab leaders, said the Arab League could not issue such a call.
"We are not in the business of changing the regime of one country or another," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said. "We can only ask all parties to abide by international resolutions in order to avoid war."
Many Arab leaders are convinced the United States is determined to topple Hussein. If they were to move to get him to step down peacefully, they would be in a better position to help shape the profound changes to the region expected from a war.
Diplomats said the summit might send a high-level delegation to Baghdad carrying a message to Hussein, with vague suggestions that he quit.
Ali al-Treiki, Libya's representative, said: "It is up to the Iraqi people to decide, not to the Arab summit or to Mr. Powell."
Some countries, like Kuwait, argue war is inevitable and say the focus should be on planning for the aftermath. A second camp, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, argues war can be avoided if Iraq cooperates fully with U.N. weapons inspectors. A third camp, led by Syria, wants Arabs to rally around Iraq and produce a summit declaration opposed to war.