| play the game: A crowd watches British soldiers take on a local soccer team in al Madeena, Iraq. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 18 (Reuters): Stunned by the swift US-led takeover of Iraq, neighbouring states gathered in Saudi Arabia today to weigh a response as a diplomatic row brewed between Washington and the UN over economic sanctions.
With diplomacy taking centre stage after the downfall of Saddam Hussein, the eight states were expected to discuss ties with the future authorities in Baghdad and offer verbal support for Syria, which is facing strong US pressure.
With all of Iraq now under US and British control, pressure builds on Washington to find banned chemical or biological weapons in the country, a leading justification for the war.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he did not think American teams would find the weapons unless Iraqis knowledgeable about the arms programmes told them where to look.
The regional meeting in Riyadh, the first such forum on post-war Iraq, was being attended by foreign ministers from Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt and Bahrain as well as host Saudi Arabia.
None of these countries was on good terms with Iraq during Saddam’s rule, but with a political vacuum opening at the heart of the volatile region,all want a say in what comes next. “We want to find a common policy to bring to the table whether on humanitarian aid or reconstruction, and what political relations with a future government in Iraq will be,” a Saudi official said.
Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara said he thought the meeting would call for withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. “Occupation is not the right response to stability in Iraq,” he said in Cairo yesterday.
Syria has been repeatedly accused by the US in the past week of harbouring officials of the fallen Iraqi government but a US official said yesterday there were now signs that Syria might be considering expelling them.
The US has toned down its rhetoric and secretary of state Colin Powell said he was considering a trip to Damascus as part of a wider West Asian visit.
But a diplomatic storm could be gathering over yesterday’s call by US President George W. Bush for the UN to lift crippling economic sanctions against Baghdad, first imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Bush faces an uphill battle to get them dropped quickly. The issue raises questions over who controls Iraq’s oil and, therefore, effectively runs the country.
Ironically, diplomats from some countries that had long pressed for sanctions to be eased, and opposed the invasion of Iraq, are now saying the restrictions should stay in place until the UN certifies that Iraq is free of banned weapons. “For the Security Council to take this decision, we need to be certain whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not,” said Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov.
Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, who pulled his team out of Iraq before the war, said the US needed expert help to pursue the investigations. Washington has made clear it prefers to do the job itself, but a Pentagon official said it had enlisted about 10 former UN weapons inspectors to help the search.
Rumsfeld said help from Iraqi insiders would be needed.
“It is not like a treasure hunt where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something,” he said in Washington. “I think what will happen is we’ll discover people who will tell us where to go find it.”
The US military hope captured Iraqi officials will confirm Baghdad had outlawed weapons.
Behind the manoeuvring over sanctions and weapons inspections, many huge lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure are at stake.
The US Agency for International Development yesterday awarded a contract worth up to $680 million to Bechtel Group Inc., a privately-owned San Francisco company — the biggest Iraqi deal awarded so far by the US. Bechtel’s initial projects are to rebuild Iraq’s power generation, water and sewage systems.
The commander of the US Marines in Iraq, Maj. Gen. James Mattis, said that after a blackout lasting more than a week, some electricity would be restored to Baghdad today.
“Getting the water, the power, the trash (collection) back up, that’s absolutely critical,” he said. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a strong voice in the Islamic world and an outspoken critic of the war on Iraq, said today the US and Britain should bear responsibility for rebuilding the country.
“They know how to destroy Iraq, so they must know how to reconstruct it,” the 77-year-old Premier said.
In a sign that combat operations are over in Baghdad, US Marines, the rapid strike force who helped seize the city, said they would begin handing control of their sector to the US Army tomorrow. The city is currently divided between Marines, who control the part east of the river Tigris, and Army units occupying the western half, complicating the job of US planners trying to end chaos and restore services to the population.