WASHINGTON - The foreign minister of Qatar said yesterday that his nation opposes war against Iraq, but he did not rule out the possibility that Qatar, on the Persian Gulf, would allow the United States to use its military bases to launch such an attack.
The minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir al-Thani, said he thought war against Iraq would "destabilize the region," adding that his government has urged President Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq without restrictions or conditions.
"I can see there is a big momentum" for an invasion, he said. "We need to see how we can slow down this process."
Asked if his government would grant the United States permission to use warplanes and soldiers based in Qatar to invade Iraq if inspections were thwarted, he replied, "If they asked us, we would look at this seriously."
"Nobody asked us," Hamad said. "But you have to realize that we have a very special relationship with the United States, and this relation always will be in our consideration in any decision."
Hamad made his remarks before an audience of journalists and Middle East analysts at the Brookings Institution the day after Pentagon officials said the U.S. Central Command plans to move 600 officers to Qatar in November for a war simulation. The officials said it was likely the officers would remain after the exercise to form the core of a planning group for a possible military campaign against Iraq.
The United States has also been developing Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, adding runways, fortifying hangars and installing advanced equipment. The United States used the base, which has the longest runway in the region, to fly bombing missions over Afghanistan.
Al Udeid has grown in importance to the American military because of resistance in Saudi Arabia to an invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon maintains an advanced air command center at Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh, but Saudi officials have suggested they might not allow that base to be used to attack Iraq.
Hamad said he urged Hussein to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq during a meeting last month in Baghdad. The Bush administration contends Iraq has been trying to develop nuclear and biological weapons since weapons inspectors left in 1998.
But Hamad said Hussein was concerned that the United States would attack Iraq even if the inspectors were allowed to return.
"He says, 'Why should I do it if the military action will be done, with or without inspections?'" Hamad said. "I think he is looking for a guarantee that if he allowed them in, that he would not be hit militarily until the inspectors see what they have to see."
Many advocates of resuming inspections have raised similar concerns, saying the United States cannot push for new inspections while also calling for Hussein's overthrow. Those advocates have proposed a multiple-step process that starts with a resumption of inspections and proceeds to an invasion only if Hussein thwarts inspectors, as he did frequently during the seven years that Iraq was formally accessible to the teams.
Hamad also raised doubts about another rationale cited by administration officials for attacking Iraq: that ousting Hussein will encourage the growth of democracy in Iraq and other Persian Gulf nations.
"Do you think Saddam is the only obstacle to democracy in our region?" Hamad said wryly in response to a question. "I think you know the answer."