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 Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 07:42 GMT
Iraq's neighbours in crisis talks
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (l) with his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Maher
Ministers are meeting to co-ordinate regional policy
The BBC's Paul Wood

Regional foreign ministers are gathering in Istanbul to discuss the situation in Iraq with one main premise: it is not too late to stop the war.

The meeting will be attended by Egypt's foreign minister and by foreign ministers from five countries which border Iraq: Jordan, Iran, Turkey itself, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Myers, in front of a portrait of Kemal Ataturk
US military chiefs want to use Turkish bases in the event of war
Speculation has been rife that the leaders of these six nations are trying to put together a deal for President Saddam Hussein to go into exile with his family and top officials.

The US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has hinted that this would be an acceptable outcome.

The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, says he understands the Saudis, especially, are "keen on encouraging Saddam to leave Iraq".

Yet over the past 48 hours, the Jordanian, Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers have all moved to publicly squash this notion.

Open in new window : Who backs war?
Where key nations stand on Iraq

"A change of regime is something that comes from inside the country not from outside the country," said Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister.

That is the official position not just of the Saudi Government but of most Middle Eastern regimes - fearful of setting a precedent that governments can be changed at the whim of the White House.

This is a way of providing an honourable way out for the Baghdad regime

Unnamed diplomat quoted by Turkish TV

But the public positions may not be the whole picture.

After all, any negotiations with the Iraqi president would have to take place in total secrecy.

Saddam is looking over his shoulder at the many enemies he knows would kill him if it were known he was stepping down.

So what, officially, are they talking about in Istanbul?

The Jordanian Foreign Minister, Marwan Moasher, said: "What is on the agenda is only a way to find a political solution to the crisis."

Persuasion not pressure

In other words, finding a face-saving way out for Iraq.

As an unnamed diplomat quoted by Turkish TV put it: "The main goal of these meetings is to create the impression that Iraq had been persuaded to co-operate fully with the UN as a result of efforts by friendly countries, rather than the pressure of the US."

The diplomat continued: "This is a way of providing an honourable way out for the Baghdad regime."

Turkey - which will be vital for any military campaign - is also being joined by countries like Saudi Arabia in urging restraint on the US.

Give the UN inspectors a chance to finish their work will be another message from this meeting.

As the frantic diplomatic pace in the Arab world continues, there are already plans for a presidential summit to follow this foreign ministers' meeting - to take place either in Damascus, or once again in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, one intriguing question is left hanging in the air.

If there is indeed something to all the talk of exile for Saddam, which country might be preparing to roll out the welcome mat for the Iraqi president?

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21 Jan 03 | Europe
21 Jan 03 | Media reports
07 Jan 03 | Middle East
05 Jan 03 | Middle East
04 Jan 03 | Middle East
20 Jan 03 | Europe
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