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Discord on Iraq, Kuwait thwarts unity efforts by Arab foreign ministers

AMMAN, Jordan — Arab foreign ministers tried Sunday to persuade Iraq and Kuwait to agree to a compromise formula to patch over their dispute, which has long divided the Arab world, ahead of a key summit this week.

But the ministers were unable to reach a deal on the divisive issue of Iraq by the time formal meetings ended Sunday night. If further talks can't resolve the dispute, Arab heads of state will have to tackle it when they gather Tuesday.

The summit aims at reviving the regular gatherings of Arab League leaders that have been disrupted since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But divisions are sharp over what stance the league should take on U.N. sanctions against Iraq — with Iraq pressing Arab leaders to call for their immediate lifting, a stance opposed by Kuwait.

The summit in the Jordanian capital convenes amid pressure from the Arab public that leaders address months of Israeli-Palestinian violence that has killed more than 430 people. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan arrived Sunday evening to attend the summit.

Under a draft statement being prepared by the ministers for the leaders' approval, Arab leaders would underline their support for the Palestinians and condemn what they call the continuous Israeli aggression, coercion and siege of the Palestinian territories.

Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul-Illah Khatib said the foreign ministers urged the U.N. Security Council to provide international protection in light of "oppressive Israeli measures and the tyrant siege" against the Palestinians.

Across Egypt on Sunday, thousands of university students demonstrated against Israel and urged the Arab summit to forge a united stance in support of the Palestinians. In Damascus, Syria, eight radical Palestinian groups issued a statement urging Arab leaders to halt normal relations with Israel. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with the Jewish state, and Arab League member Mauritania has full diplomatic ties.

The Iraq-Kuwait debate at the ministers' meeting stirred up intense feelings and forced long hours of diplomatic shuttling between the two sides to find common ground.

Khatib said the entire draft final statement for the summit had been decided — except the Iraq issue, on which consultations would continue. "We are trying to reach a balanced text that will take into consideration the different concerns of each side," he said.

"It will be settled. We still have time," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.

Baghdad wanted the summit to demand a lifting of U.N. sanctions and a "negation" of the no fly zones over its territory enforced by U.S. and British planes — including some based in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.

Kuwait opposed those measures and wanted a full Iraqi apology for the 1990 invasion and Arab reassurances it would not happen again — demands that Iraq's foreign minister refused, according to Arab diplomats.

A committee of five countries drafted a "final compromise" Sunday that they tried to get both sides to accept.

A minister on the committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the proposal underlines the need to work to lift the sanctions but does not directly call for their abolishment. It also reiterates the need to respect the territorial sovereignty of both countries and calls for cooperation to resolve POW issues between the two. Both countries claim that the other is holding prisoners from the 1991 Gulf War.

Arab leaders are faced with mounting public frustration over the sanctions on Iraq, which Baghdad says are harming its population and are not justifiable because it no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction.

The governments of Syria and Egypt — Kuwait's main Gulf War allies — and Jordan — which has close trade ties with Iraq — have been sympathetic to Iraq.

Even the United States, the main international backer of the sanctions, has acknowledged that the embargo is badly frayed and has called for refocusing it so ordinary Iraqis are hurt less and President Saddam Hussein's access to weapons is reduced.

Kuwait, which still depends on its Western allies for protection, said last month that it backed "altering" the sanctions to maintain a ban on military materials that would directly threaten Kuwait's security.

Under U.N. resolutions, the sanctions cannot be lifted until Iraq surrenders all weapons of mass destruction.