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Interview with Ambassador Richard Murphy - 2003-03-07

The Iraqi situation has created obvious tension among nations supporting and opposing military action. It is also apparently fraying the nerves within the Arab world. An emergency meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, held in Qatar Wednesday, seemed to expose all this. The meeting was called to unite the world's 1 billion Muslims against a U.S.-led attack on Iraq, but it was overshadowed, to some extent, by a shouting match between Iraqi delegate Izzat Ibrahim and Kuwaiti delegates.

It all began when Ibrahim denounced Kuwait as a U.S. agent and a traitor to the Muslim faith. At one point Ibrahim called the Kuwaiti a monkey. He also referred to the United States as the tyrant, and told members of the world's largest Islamic group that Baghdad expected concrete steps to support Iraq against the U.S. Ibrahim was then silenced by the summit's chairman. The final statement failed to mention the Iraqi crisis and instead focused only on the Palestinian?Israeli conflict.

Well, on Wednesday I spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia Richard Murphy. I asked him if these public eruptions reflect deep divisions in the Arab world over Iraq.

What it reminds us is that the Arabs are not fully united on every subject. This wasn't the first public disagreement. Only a few days earlier, at the summit at Sharm al-Sheik, there was a sharp dispute between Muammar Qaddafi, from Libya, and Crown Prince Abdullah. But, go back even further, to 1990, when the critical Arab League vote was taken on whether to go ahead in supporting the international coalition coming into the area against the Iraqi occupation. It split. And this was a deep shock to many of the delegates, because the desire in the Arab League -- in fact, I think the rule -- was that there should be decisions taken unanimously. But the fact is the tension they feel over not having unanimous decisions I think is healthy, that they have different interests. Just because Arabic is a common language, just because the overwhelming number of people in the Arab countries are Muslim, there are different interests, according to subregions, according to individual countries. So, they occasionally erupt into public disagreements.

But clearly Saddam Hussein himself, in some of his recent speeches, is trying to coalesce the Muslim world in the face of what he views as Western aggression, and to try to build up this unity so that he knows he has backing, don't you think?

Well, he's working hard to get the sympathy votes, and he's done it by, frankly, distorting Iraq's record over Israel, “that we have always been in the forefront of those defending the Palestinians.” His position back in the eighties, when I knew him, was that whatever the Palestinians and Israelis could agree to, Iraq would accept. Which was a considerably more nuanced position than what you've heard in these last few years.

Now, this effort by the United Arab Emirates to suggest that Saddam step down at Sharm al-Sheik was kind of brushed over, in a way, not really discussed. What do you make of that?

Well, the idea started actually, I think, with the Qataris back about three months ago. And the Foreign Minister of Qatar was told, that's the end of your meeting, and he was put back on his airplane to return from the meeting with Saddam. The answer was, no, I'm not going into exile; I'm not going to discuss it.

So, the President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, who is a remarkable nationalist leader, very much respected in the region, when he revived it, it was still a hot potato in the discussions at the summit. So, it did not make its way onto the formal agenda. And now we've seen subsequently the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council could not find exactly the way to put it. Everyone has seen this as a way to avoid a war, if the leadership would step out and if there were full compliance on disarmament.

Ambassador, there seems to be no ending to the violence inside Israel. There has just been another explosion there, a number of people killed. The President of the United States, George W. Bush, in remarks the other day, had suggested that if the Iraqi issue had been responded to, that the violence in the Middle East might clear up, perhaps end to some degree. What is your view of that linkage there?

The war will not -- if this war takes place, it will not end in some sort of miraculous opening of doors to peace between Arabs and Israelis or to restoration of the dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. To get that dialogue back, among other things that have to happen is a much more vigorous engagement by the American President, the American Government, in reactivating, reviving, that dialogue. And I hope that the President's message the other day was the signal that he was ready for that engagement.

But nothing is going to happen automatically. The dispute is deeply rooted. It preceded the East-West conflict which dominated affairs so often in the Middle East. It preceded the establishment of the State of Israel. There are issues which have to be worked out, compromises that have to be reached, and we can be instrumental.