BAGHDAD – Saddam Hussein ordered the construction of the Om Al Maariq mosque in 1998, slightly before a US bombing campaign. The magnificent mosque – sort of Islam meets art deco – is capable of holding 1,800 worshipers and is the largest in Baghdad.

It was finished last year, but Thamir Ibrahim, the chief of the protocol department at the mosque, refuses to say how much it cost. But despite the secrecy surrounding many sensitive buildings in Baghdad, it would be a stretch of the imagination to accuse the mosque’s authorities of hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam has visited the complex only once, last September. He did not go to the inauguration but during the three years of construction he was very busy writing – in handsome Arabic calligraphy – a copy of the Holy Koran. This is now solemnly displayed at the mosque behind a circular glass wall.

Iraq’s Islamic credentials could be very handy at this crucial juncture in the history of the Middle East. Already in Jordan’s capital city, Amman, before crossing the Jordanian-Iraqi border and cruising the 551 kilometers of impeccable freeway through the desert towards Baghdad, it is possible to sense the Arab world’s refusal to link Washington’s involvement to defuse the tragic spiral of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with support for a military strike against Iraq.

From Amman to Baghdad, and including echoes from Cairo, Damascus and Beirut, Arab diplomats admit in private that a collective Arab position supporting Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s proposal is the key to breaking the impasse in Palestine and to preempting a US military strike against Iraq.

But this would mean less American dominance of the whole Middle Eastern peace process – while the European Union is busy reconfiguring itself as the big player-in-waiting. The EU is more than eager to assume an extremely high profile. Talks have been going on since 1991. The Arab world is definitely considering a formal “invitation”. Not accidentally, endless German delegations travel to Baghdad.

Arab diplomats – echoing Brussels – also comment that the US and Israel definitely don’t want the EU to have a strong role in the Middle East. Musa Kellani, a respected Jordanian columnist, observes, “The European posture is based on the realization that Europe stands to bear the brunt of instability in the Middle East – by sheer proximity and the historical European involvement in the region’s affairs.”

From the point of view of both Amman and Baghdad, and for a number of not necessarily the same reasons, it is fair to assume that increasingly the Arab world is going to rely on Europe. Arab diplomats, including those present at the Arab League summit that began in Beirut on Wednesday, are convinced that Washington’s interest in the Middle East revolves around one issue only: oil. And they have also seen how Washington has simply ignored the EU collective criticism of the Bush administration’s obsession on attacking Iraq.

Baghdad has its eyes set firmly on Beirut. In the past few weeks Iraq has staged a complex diplomatic dance around many Arab capitals – designed to offset US Vice President Dick Cheney’s 11-nation Middle East trip. The vice president of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, Izzat Ibrahim, and Foreign Minister Naji Sabri visited Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan visited Sudan and Yemen. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz went to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Cheney left the Middle East without an Arab mandate to attack Iraq.

Unlike the Arab street, the official Arab world wants the US to play a strong, resolute role in resuming the Araraeli peace process – but on one condition: Iraq cannot be sacrificed. This is the “message” likely to emerge from the ongoing Beirut summit. Consequently, an impasse is inevitable: the US wants a solution to Palestine, but also a free hand to attack Iraq. Amir Musa, the Arab League’s secretary general, has repeated again and again, “The Arab-Israeli conflict is one thing. The Iraqi-Kuwait conflict is a different one.” The Arab world’s version of “saving face” in this confrontation would be to extract a maximum of concessions to the benefit of Palestine, since Washington has already made up its mind regarding Iraq.

While politics is the main axis of the Arab summit in Beirut, economic issues are equally important. Arabs are finally realizing that they must put aside political differences for the sake of economic interests. The Arab world is facing a common challenge: countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Iraq are confronted by low economic growth, high unemployment, very high internal and external debt and weak exports.

Oil wealth of late has meant practically nothing in terms of achieving a better standard of living. The Arab countries’ combined gross domestic product (GDP) was US$440 billion in 1980. It was about $730 billion in 2001. The annual growth rate was about 2 percent – with an average inflation of about 3 percent. So real GDP growth was actually negative. The average real GDP growth globally was 3 percent in these two decades.

The Arab countries’ population in 1980 was 140 million. It was 285 million in 2001. So per capita income has also declined. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, it fell from $25,000 in 1988 to $8,500 in 2001.

Trade has not provided a solution. The Arab Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) has existed since 1998, with 14 member countries. Total exports of the Arab world in 2000 – including oil – were $243 billion: this is less than the combined exports of Hong Kong and Singapore ($250 billion in 2000). Inter-Arab trade was only $33.5 billion in 2000, only 8.6 percent of the total. Excluding oil and minerals, inter-Arab trade is only 16 percent of the total.

As the Arab world struggles in Beirut to find the same voice politically as well as economically, Iraq – as we hear everywhere in a Baghdad prone at the moment to extremely metaphoric sandstorms – remains a country at war. But the popular mood is defiant.

At a “Scientific Conference on the Impact of Weapons on Humans and the Environment in Iraq”, the best scientists in the land denounced the effects of US bombing with depleted uranium, while the president of the organizing committee stressed that “evil powers want to destroy Iraq in the name of peace.”

For educated Iraqis, the martyrs of the second intifada in Palestine are as cherished as the martyrs of the Gulf War – thousands of them victims of bombing by depleted uranium. No wonder: for people of the Book – Jews, Christians, Muslims – Iraq is a holy land, as well as Palestine. The Biblical Eden was situated somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates. When God chased Adam and Eve from paradise, paradise was located in Mesopotamia (in Greek: “the earth between the rivers”.)

At the traditional souk Al Alabi, in old Baghdad, vendors of shirts and socks from Syria are unanimous, “I am Iraqi. I am strong.” Ministry of Information officials assure that no bunkers are being built to protect the civilian population from possible US bombing.

In the relatively upscale Masba neighborhood, Baghdad boys cruise in luxury cars and eat pizzas at California-style cafes. In this land at war, which has suffered the ravages of Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Sassanians, Ummayyads, Abbassides, Seljuks, Safavids, Ottomans and British, another war may be inevitable – but nobody seems to be running for cover yet.

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