The tragedy of the Iraqi people is turning into a farce in the Arab rulers’ hands. As if the insults traded between colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya and crown prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the Arab League summit on March 1 were not enough, the OIC also got in on the act on March 5 in Doha. It was convened as an “emergency” session by Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, ruler of Qatar, as chairman of OIC, to avert the war, but it soon degenerated into a shouting-match between the Iraqis and Kuwaitis. Insults are not unusual, but their broadcast on television is a new phenomenon.
When Izzeddin Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council, complained that his country had suffered ten times more than Kuwait in the 1990-1991 invasion and occupation, Muhammed Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti minister of state for foreign affairs, called him a liar. Ibrahim shouted back: “shut up, you monkey,” and then followed up “Curse be upon your moustache, you traitor.” In Arabic idiom, a man’s moustache is linked with his honour, and cursing it is considered the ultimate insult. At this, al-Sabah got up from his seat and called Ibrahim a “dog” and a “hypocrite.” Ibrahim retorted that Kuwait was a backward, neglected province of Iraq, whereupon the Kuwaiti information minister, Shaikh Ahmed Fahd al-Ahmed, jumped up waving a miniature Kuwaiti flag. Shaikh Hamad tried to end this pantomime by ordering the microphones and television cameras to be switched off.
Keeping in mind that the 57-member conference was convened to consider ways to avert a disastrous war, this degeneration into insults shows the pathetic state of the Muslim Ummah. This was not an Arab League summit, but a much larger meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, whose members come from all parts of the world and are supposed to represent the whole Ummah, so such a display is doubly depressing. Such disgraceful behaviour would be hard to imagine even among children in a school yard, yet here were top officials of Muslim countries indulging in base invective against each other.
The scene for a showdown was set at the Arab League summit on March 1, where Shaikh Zayd bin Sultan al-Nahyan of the UAE had proposed that Saddam Husain go into voluntary exile to avoid a war that would have catastrophic consequences. He also suggested that armies from the Arab League enter Iraq to maintain peace and stability once Saddam leaves. This must have provoked chuckles in the US. The Iraqis dismissed the idea too. Only a day earlier, Saddam had told Dan Rather on CBS that he would not go into exile. “We would prefer to die fighting in Iraq,” is how he put it. The exile idea was again floated by Shaikh Abdullah Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE information minister, at the OIC summit. He said in an interview, “Unless the Iraqis come up with a miracle, we don’t think we can avert war”, and by the end of the OIC session almost everyone seemed resigned to it.
The disarray in Arab and Muslim ranks is evident from the fact that Qatar is host to the US Central Command operations for a war against Iraq. A base near the capital, Doha, will serve as headquarters for general Tommy Franks, the invasion commander, and an air base will serve as a launching-pad for air-strikes. Neighbouring Bahrain is the base of the US Fifth Fleet; tens of thousands of American and British soldiers have taken up positions on Kuwait’s border with Iraq. The Saudis have agreed under pressure to allow the use of their bases for US planes, while publicly denying that permission has been given.
The vote in the Turkish parliament was seen as a setback for US war plans, but top Turkish generals, who are Turkey’s real decision-makers, said on March 5 that they will cooperate with the US. If the Turks refuse permission for their territory to be used for an invasion from the north, the Americans can still go ahead by using northern Iraq. The Turkish reluctance springs from the fact that the French and Germans have warned Ankara that its application for membership in the EU will be jeopardized if Ankara joins America’s war. As the Turkish application has been in limbo for many years, the Turks may well go ahead and allow their bases to be used by the Americans in return for US$26 billion in aid and loan-guarantees.
Other proposals were also floated at the OIC summit. Iran suggested that opposition groups and Saddam get together to hold elections in the country. This is a non-starter, as the two sides are far apart and most opposition-groups are under American influence or control: they are hoping to ride American tanks into Baghdad in the manner of the Northern Alliance’s march into Kabul when the Taliban abandoned the city on November 13, 2001. The Iraqis under Saddam may not retreat, although the Americans could wreak havoc on the population with their so-called ‘smart’ bombs and ‘precision-guided’ missiles.
Given the sad state of the Muslim Ummah and the fact that some Arab rulers themselves are cooperating with the US, what did Shaikh Hamad hope to achieve by an emergency meeting of the OIC? Perhaps he saw it as an opportunity to project the importance of Qatar. It may also have given him an edge on the Saudis, with whom Qatar has a long-running border-dispute. Whatever his motive, Shaikh Hamad only helped to expose divisions in the Muslim world and the impotence of its rulers.