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Iraq steps up diplomatic offensive to avert war

By Roula Khalaf
Published: March 11 2002 18:34 | Last Updated: March 11 2002 21:49

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is stepping up a diplomatic offensive aimed at countering the threat of possible US military action to overthrow his regime.
As Dick Cheney, US vice-president, arrives in the Middle East on Tuesday on a tour to rally support for the anti-terror campaign, Mr Saddam has dispatched his own envoy to Arab capitals to urge opposition to US military attacks.

On Monday, Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, said Baghdad would raise its financial contribution to families of Palestinians killed in the conflict with Israel. Martyrs' relatives would receive $25,000 (£17,600, E28,700) instead of $10,000, he said.

The move, reported by international news agencies, appeared timed to win sympathy from an Arab public increasingly disillusioned by governments' inability to stem the deterioration in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Posturing as a champion of Palestinian rights, especially while Iraq is under United Nations sanctions, has been part of Mr Saddam's strategy to maintain Arab support. Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed have been receiving $5,000 from Iraq, while those wounded in the uprising against Israeli occupation are given $1,000 each.

Izzat Ibrahim, vice-chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, on Monday arrived in Damascus to seek the backing of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, ahead of an Arab summit in Beirut at the end of this month.

Iraq wants the summit to stress the region's rejection of US military action and call to lift UN sanctions. It has also indicated a readiness for an "Arab deal" - an agreement with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Such an accord was on offer at last year's Arab summit in Amman but was rejected by Iraq.

Senior officials say there are currently no plans to put the resolution on the agenda in Beirut. The summit will instead be dominated by a Saudi peace initiative on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Mr Ibrahim's trip coincides with the leaking of a Pentagon report that raises the possibility of nuclear strikes against rogue states suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction, including Iraq and Syria. Damascus has not commented on the document.

The visit follows a stop in Jordan, where Mr Ibrahim met King Abdullah. According to Jordan's state news agency, the king warned of the catastrophic implications of a US attack on Iraq.

Trying to influence the Arab summit, which will be attended by a representative of Mr Saddam, is only one part of Iraq's diplomatic offensive.

Baghdad has also renewed talks with the UN on issues including the resumption of UN weapons inspectors.

Officials in Baghdad at the weekend insisted the inspectors, who left in 1998 on the eve of a US bombing campaign, would never be allowed back.

But Naji Sabri al-Hadithi, Iraq's foreign minister, held talks at the UN on the subject last week and further discussions are scheduled for mid-April.



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