DOHA, Qatar - An Iraqi leader unleashed a vitriolic attack on Kuwaiti delegates to an emergency meeting of Muslim nations yesterday, turning a last-ditch attempt to avoid war into a televised verbal mugging that further frayed emotions throughout the Islamic world.
After denouncing Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar for allowing American forces to mass in his country, Iraqi envoy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri then hurled insults at Sabah's deputy who had stood up to defend his minister.
"Shut up, you little man, you traitor, you monkey," shouted Ibrahim. "Don't you know you are talking to Iraq?"
By the time Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, finished off his attack with a suggestion that Kuwait's minister of state for foreign affairs Sheikh Mohammed Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah wasn't man enough to deserve the mustache he wore, all hopes of presenting even the facade of solidarity on the Iraq crisis had disappeared. TV screens in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf suddenly went blank as shocked government officials cut off live coverage of the event, but by then it was too late.
The day-long summit of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference never recovered. It concluded with a vaguely worded communique calling for a peaceful settlement of the Iraq crisis within the United Nations framework, but with no plan of action on how to achieve that end. With only a handful of heads of government attending and some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, questioning the wisdom of holding a meeting with little chance of success, a sense of defeat seemed to hang over the event before it began.
"It's a very difficult moment," admitted Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem, at a news conference after the meeting. "The Arab and Islamic world is divided because we don't know what goals we have."
While the conference failed to produce the show of unity its hosts had hoped for, its collapse was spectacular. Live television shots of the exchange left both Iraqis and Kuwaitis angry, and other viewers in the region stunned.
The verbal pyrotechnics yesterday marked the second time in less than a week that Arab leaders have traded bitter insults before television cameras on the Iraq issue. At an Arab League summit meeting last weekend in Egypt, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi accused Saudi Arabia of "striking an alliance with the devil" by permitting U.S. forces to be based in the country - an accusation that led Saudi Prince Abdullah to poke his finger angrily at Gadhafi and call him a liar.
On both occasions, the target of attack was the leader of a country playing host to U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf. Public displays of animosity between leaders are highly unusual in the Arab world, where such differences tend to be tightly-held private affairs.
For some, the recent outbursts reflect a growing tension between countries - mainly the small Persian Gulf sheikhdoms such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar - that see the United States as a protector, and others that view America as a dangerous and menacing intruder.
These tensions have been fueled by the U.S. military build-up in the region and prospect of an American-led invasion of Iraq. But they are also driven by America's perceived indifference to the increasingly bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians - a conflict almost universally viewed in the Arab world as an unfair fight.
"If we can't change the way we do business in the Arab League and at the Islamic Conference, then these meetings will become only ceremonial," Sheikh Hamad said.
Observers believe Ibrahim's outburst, which came at the end of his prepared remarks to the conference, were likely triggered by Sabah's call - made moments before in tough language - that the Iraqi leadership consider making "the ultimate sacrifice" by handing over power and stepping down.
In Baghdad, at the Information Ministry's international press center, a loud gasp went up when Ibrahim was effectively insulted on live television, something unheard of in such a tightly governed country. There was a stampede of feet as others rushed up in time to catch the end of the exchange.
"That's good! Tell him," one man in the crowd shouted when Ibrahim launched his broadside. Sabah's remarks touched long-standing Iraqi feelings of resentment toward Kuwait, still considered by many in Baghdad as an uppity, pampered and self-important country that by rights should be merely a province of Iraq, which occupied it in 1990.
Within minutes of the emotional clash in Doha, word was also spreading through Kuwait like a sandstorm, amplified in prosperous neighborhoods, traditional markets and modern shopping centers. Many Kuwaitis said the Iraqi comments made them angry, but didn't come as a surprise.
"We've become so used to this," said Khalid Doub, a government coordinator with the Kuwaiti Oil Tanker Co. "What can you expect from such a lowdown regime?"
Tyler Marshall, John Daniszewski and Mark Magnier write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.