ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Iraq's neighbors prefer to live with a weakened Saddam Hussein, even one with weapons of mass destruction, rather than endure the chaos and economic devastation they fear a war to overthrow him would unleash.
A gathering of Saddam's neighbors in this former Ottoman capital showed they are less worried by a possible Iraqi arsenal than by what the regime change sought by the United States might bring.
The nations fear a flood of refugees, disrupted economies, the prospect of agitation among their own ethnic minorities - and even the possibility of a more democratic government in Iraq, which could undermine the region's autocratic regimes. And without Saddam, Iraq's oil riches would be unfettered and might flood the market.
"Certainly he has made us suffer a lot," said one Iranian diplomat at this week's gathering. "But it does not mean one mistake should be solved by another mistake."
The foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, in their meeting here Thursday, called on Iraq to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors to avoid a U.S. military strike.
They did not, however, call for Saddam's ouster. Nor did they encourage him to step down and go into exile - despite widespread rumors that the conference would issue such a call.
The conference "has focused on the need for a concerted effort to avert war and to work toward a peaceful settlement of the Iraqi crisis," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa told CNN.
"I believe that the warmongers in Washington are losing touch with the people, even in Washington, not to mention other countries, and they are heading toward the unknown," he said.
Those sentiments are not universally shared in Kuwait, where the United States is assembling troops for a possible attack on Iraq. Kuwait endured seven months of Iraqi occupation until the U.S.-led coalition freed the country in 1991. However, Kuwait was not invited to the regional meeting.
"If Saddam is overthrown, the region will become unstable," the Iranian diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "We will face economic crises, the security problem will make it difficult for us to sell oil. When there is insecurity in the Persian Gulf, it will affect all these things."
Those comments are all the more striking because they were made by an official of a country that suffered incredible hardships at the hands of Saddam.
The Iraqi leader sent his troops into Iran in 1980, launching an 8-year war that claimed a million lives. Thousands of Iranian veterans are still suffering from the effects of chemical weapons used against them by Saddam's forces.
Still, the diplomat said Iran preferred that there be no war to oust Saddam.
"Of course he is not a loved man," the diplomat said, referring to Saddam. "But who says anyone better would replace him."
The Turks, too, would prefer the status quo. They worry that a post-Saddam government that might grant greater powers to Iraq's minority Kurds. That in turn could lead to similar demands for self-rule by Turkey's own Kurdish population.
"Turkey has lived with Saddam for some 20 years, since before the (1991) Gulf War, since before the Iran-Iraq war. There has been no problem," said Huseyin Bagci, professor of International Relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
The Saudis fear that the overthrow of Saddam would strengthen Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community. That could lead to close ties between Shiites in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia - to the detriment of the ruling Saudi royal family.
Syria and Egypt worry that the end of Baghdad's regime might undermine their own governments, which have been criticized as autocratic.
Ghassan Atiyya, an Iraqi analyst in London, said the main decision of Thursday's meeting was "to maintain the status quo and if a change has to occur in Baghdad, they hope it would be as minimum as possible."
Even if Saddam were to go, most of his neighbors would prefer a government dominated by his Baath Party with the Sunni Muslims, rather than the majority Shiites, remaining in power, Atiyya said.
"It will be a very important phenomenon in the Middle East if there is a pluralistic, democratic state in Iraq with Kurds becoming major partners in Baghdad. It will have an effect on all neighboring countries at different levels - each country differently," Atiyya said.
He said most of Iraq's neighbors "don't want democracy in Iraq - not in the same intensity." He said Jordan would more likely endorse a democratic Iraq but maintains close economic links to Baghdad and a war could destroy Jordan's economy.
Atiyya said the most positive outcome of the meeting was that it has created a forum in which the regional countries can have a unified voice in influencing policy more effectively than the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which groups Gulf oil sheikhdoms.
"It's the first meeting on a regional level which could be the beginning of a regional arrangement - that includes Turkey and Iran," said Atiyya. "It will also show America that there's a unified voice."
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