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Middle East Regional Ministers Set for Talks on Preventing Iraq War - 2003-01-22

Foreign ministers from several Middle Eastern nations will meet Thursday in Istanbul to discuss ways to prevent a war against Iraq.

The meeting, bringing together foreign ministers from Iran, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, is the latest step in a concerted diplomatic campaign led by Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis.

According to Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, the purpose of the conference is to send a clear message to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he needs to cooperate fully with United Nations weapons inspectors if he wants to avoid conflict with the United States.

Turkish officials say the ministers will also be laying the groundwork for a summit of leaders from their nations that would take place at a date and place to be decided at the Istanbul conference.

Mr. Yakis on Wednesday denied media reports that the conference would try to come up with a plan for the Iraqi leader to step down and go into exile in a third country.

U.S. officials have publicly praised Turkey's efforts to avert a war. And Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said earlier this week that his government welcomed any moves toward peace.

One of the officials attending the conference, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharah, said Wednesday that it will emphasize the importance of international institutions in resolving the Iraq crisis and will not approve any hostile action.

Western diplomats say Turkey's government may get some domestic benefits from hosting the conference. They say it will show Turkey's strongly anti-war public that it is exhausting all avenues of peace. This in turn, they add, would make it easier for the Turkish government to side with the United States in an eventual war.

As the NATO alliance's sole predominantly Muslim member, Turkey is expected to play a key role in the event of a war, as it did during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Yakis gave the strongest indication yet that Turkey is prepared to cooperate with the United States in a military campaign against Iraq.

In a television interview, the foreign minister said Turkish military officials were talking with their U.S. counterparts to decide on the number of American ground troops to be deployed in Turkey. Mr. Yakis, however, stressed that, under Turkish law, parliamentary approval would be needed for the deployment of foreign troops on Turkish soil.