Arab leaders at gathering skeptical of U.S. reform bid


RABAT, Morocco - A high-profile effort by the Bush administration to spark reform across the Middle East was greeted with skepticism yesterday as Arab leaders, including close U.S. allies, questioned American policies and said little movement would be possible without settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet departing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared yesterday's gathering of representatives from 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well those from the world's biggest industrialized powers, a historic event. Before arriving, Powell had said just getting the disparate group of leaders at the same table would be a victory, apparently a far cry from the ambitious vision for remaking the region unveiled by President Bush more than a year ago.

But concerns about U.S. support for Israel and stagnation in the peace process seemed to overshadow American reform efforts at the one-day conference, called Forum for the Future. Also, the administration had already adjusted its ambitions by focusing largely on economic and social development, as opposed to sweeping democratic initiatives.

"Let us face it," Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, told Powell and the other delegates. "Our differences are neither religious nor cultural. ... The real bone of contention is the longest conflict in modern history. For too long the Arabs have witnessed the Western bias towards Israel."

After saying Arabs understood why Americans guaranteed Israel's security, Prince Saud said: "But what the Arab peoples cannot fathom is why these guarantees are transformed into unrestricted backing of unrestrained Israeli policies [that are] contrary to international legality."

And, he said, "the beast of extremism, terrorism and hatred remains with us because we are not true to our commitments."

His words were perhaps the sharpest of those delivered to Powell, but virtually every Arab delegate who spoke - and even some from the West - raised the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Some also questioned continuing violence in Iraq and the apparently slow pace of implementing economic incentives promised this summer by the Americans as part of the reform effort.

It was not clear whether most of the statements were meant to be public or were more candid than usual because delegates had believed their main session would be closed. State Department officials had said the session would not be open, though the Moroccan government, co-host of the event, broadcast most, but not all, of the delegates' statements to journalists gathered in a nearby room.

Ahmed Abu Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, told delegates that "the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the stagnation of the peace process and the stagnation of the implementation of the road map" were lurking behind continued instability and insecurity in the region.

Hassouna al-Shawish, the Libyan deputy foreign minister, also expressed concerns about the Palestinians and said, "Continued bloodshed makes it difficult for us all. I'm talking about bloodshed in Iraq."

Before the conference, a newspaper in Rabat published a cartoon depicting an American soldier pointing his rifle at a defenseless Arab while quoting Powell about reform.

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