BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Arab governments voiced collective support yesterday for new weapons inspections inside Iraq, although they want Arab experts added to the inspection teams and warned that the latest United Nations resolution should not be considered a free pass for Washington to invade.
A resolution expressing support that was approved during a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, Egypt, reflected the underlying sense that most regional governments remain perfectly happy to see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein defanged, political analysts said, yet they fear the repercussions of another war in the region.
The action by the Arab League emphasizes that the U.N. Security Council vote "is not a pretext for another military action against Iraq," said Naji Sabri, the Iraqi foreign minister, speaking at a news conference after the Arab League meeting.
Iraq appeared to be bowing toward the inevitable, with Hussein planning to convene a special session of parliament today to discuss the issue of renewed arms inspections -- the usual choreography for a simulated public stamp of approval for a decision the regime finds distasteful.
The United States, meanwhile, warned that it would show "zero tolerance" at any Iraqi failure to cooperate with weapons inspectors.
"We do not need to waste the world's time with another game of cat and mouse," said Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, while making the rounds of yesterday's news talk shows in Washington.
Rice dismissed the prospect of Hussein seeking parliament's advice as "ludicrous," saying on ABC's This Week: "Saddam Hussein is an absolute dictator and tyrant, and the idea that somehow he expects the Iraqi parliament to debate this -- they've never debated anything else. I'm surprised he's even bothering to go through this ploy."
Britain also sent strong signals, with Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon telling Sky News yesterday that his country is prepared to take part in military action against Iraq if diplomatic efforts to disarm Hussein fail.
The extent to which governments in the region are concerned about the impact of possible military action against Iraq on regional stability was expressed yesterday by Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, on the sidelines of the meeting. He said Syria's decision to join the 15-0 vote in the Security Council to pass the resolution demanding renewed weapons inspections was designed to spare the Iraqis from being hit by the United States.
Iraq's government-controlled newspapers started out calling the resolution on disarmament of Iraq "bad and unfair." But by yesterday, Iraqi officials and news media were hailing it as an international effort to thwart the American desire for war.
Although Iraq has until Friday to declare that it intends to comply fully with the terms of the resolution, Sabri noted that Iraq had agreed previously to renewed inspections and thought there was no need to alter the U.N. guidelines about the way they worked.
"The problem is that we need experts who work in a professional, objective way," Sabri said, adding that, as the Arab League communique noted, the new inspection teams should not "try to provoke or incite clashes as they have previously."
Sabri said that if inspectors do their work objectively, they would expose the "great lie" promulgated by the United States -- "the lie about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
The Arab League resolution restated the long-standing Arab position that Iraq must work with the U.N. inspectors, and it emphasized that only the Security Council should evaluate the reports from the inspectors. Such cooperation should lead to the lifting of U.N. sanctions imposed against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Arab League said, adding that ordinary Iraqis had suffered because of the sanctions.
In addition, the league proposed that the United Nations pay equal attention to Israel's weapons of mass destruction and stressed that Arab League members were committed both to maintaining Iraq as a united country and to maintaining the stability of all Arab countries.
"They reiterate the absolute Arab rejection to striking Iraq and consider it a threat to the national security of all Arab countries," it said.
Sabri proposed as well that Arab League nations should allow their citizens to volunteer to defend Iraq, the report said. None of these specific proposals were reflected in the communique issued by the league.
"They have been meeting over and over, and they are trying to justify themselves, to save face in front of their constituency, in front of the Arab people," said Nizar Hamzeh, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, referring to the Arab League countries. "They are afraid about what comes after this war against Iraq -- which is the next country?"
Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, relations between the United States and Arab states in the region have been based on maintaining the status quo, but the sudden threat of change looms without any sense of what might come in its place.
Worst-case scenarios raise fears that the United States could redraw the map of the region, though calmer heads reject such an outcome.
"All the Arab states that I know would prefer Iraq without weapons of mass destruction," said Abdelmonem Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.