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Arab League Distances Itself From Iraq's Governing Council - 2003-09-04

Arab foreign ministers are preparing to meet in Cairo next week. They have not invited any representative of Iraq's new Governing Council, but its newly appointed foreign minister might go anyway.

The Arab League and its member nations have made a point of keeping the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council at a certain distance. Although League Secretary General Amr Moussa recently met with a delegation from the council, the Arab League has refused to officially recognize the council's authority and has not yet acted on the council's request that it be allowed to fill Iraq's vacant Arab League seat.

The issue may come to a head next week, when Arab League foreign ministers hold a two-day meeting.

The league has remained non-committal on whether the Iraqi Council's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hoshyar Zebari, would be welcomed. League spokesman Hossam Zaki says ministers will debate the issue during a preliminary meeting on September 8.

"If the ministers decide that there will be a representative from the governing council and the governing council will fill the Iraqi seat in the Arab League, then I guess the seat can be filled on the 9th. If there is no consensus or if the issue continues to be debated on the 9th, then I guess things will have to be shaped in a different way," he said.

Meanwhile, officials of the Iraqi Governing Council are proclaiming that Mr. Zebari has every intention of attending the meeting anyway. Ahmed Chalabi, who currently holds the governing council's rotating presidency, issued a statement that Iraq intends to take its rightful place at the Arab League conference.

The League has given recent signals that it's in no hurry to ease the Iraqi Council's path to formal recognition. In recent days, Mr. Moussa has welcomed a representative of the Committee to Protect the Iraqi People, a political group which actively opposes the Governing Council. The representative, Mehzer Dulaimi, called on Arab nations to reject the council.

The Arab League spokesman, Mr. Zaki, says the league is merely fulfilling its mandate by opening its doors to all Iraqi political forces.

"We're just trying to stay in contact with all those Iraqis that are reaching out to us and trying to explain to us their views on the situation in Iraq and how to go forward," said Hossam Zaki.

While the league, and several of its member governments, have hailed the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council as a step in the right direction, most seem reluctant to go much further as long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq. Next week, they may have to decide just how far they are willing to go in working with the newly installed Iraqi leaders.