The US-led war that toppled a dictator in Iraq forced its neighbors to contemplate their lack of democracy and weakness, Arabs said Saturday in a debate that exposed deep fears about what Washington might have in store next for the region.
The ramifications of the war on Iraq was among the main themes of the first major Middle East meeting of the World Economic Forum, a group of influential CEOs and entrepreneurs who usually retreat to the Swiss Alps to discuss global issues with politicians and others eager for an audience with the rich and the powerful. The Middle East meeting opened Saturday on the shores of the Dead Sea with the BBC-sponsored debate on Iraq.
The Saudi co-chair of the conference, Khalid Alireza, said Saturday he initially thought meeting in the Middle East would be a bad idea because "the wounds are too fresh" in Iraq and the road map -- the US-backed peace plan that envisions a Palestinian state in three years -- has not yet been crystalized.
But Alireza said he changed his mind in the hope that the conference, meeting within sight of the West Bank, could provide "leadership out of the quagmire."
US Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to talk privately along the meeting's sidelines yesterday with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and EU officials, who along with the US drafted the road map.
The four parties are trying to keep it on track despite recent Israeli-Palestinian violence.
More than 1,100 participants, including 11 heads of state or government and dozens of Cabinet ministers, were at the three-day Dead Sea meeting.
In a speech to the gathering, host King Abdullah III of Jordan said much has changed since the last World Economic Forum meeting at its Davos, Switzerland headquarters.
"Then, we talked about the looming war in Iraq. Now, we talk about speeding up humanitarian outreach ... reconstruction ... and credible Iraqi government that represents all its people," Abdullah said.
"Then, we talked about winning a commitment to the road map to peace for Israel and Palestine. Now, we talk about making that commitment a reality; a comprehensive peace; two states, living side by side, in peace and stability.
Saturday, much of the focus was on Iraq. The US, after ousting Saddam Hussein's regime, was accused of planning to remake Iraq into its own version of an Arab democracy, then impose that model on the rest of the region.
It fell to Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to defend the US during the debate on Iraq. Lugar said his country wanted democracy, economic vibrancy and peace for Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, and believed it could work with partners in the region who shared that vision.
"Arab countries are eager for change and at their own pace," Lugar said. "They want support from the United States and they will get it."
The Qatari foreign minister , Sheik Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani, who joined Lugar on the debate panel, said uneasiness over US intentions would never have come up had Arabs reformed themselves.
"If we'd had democracy, they [Iraqis] would have removed Saddam Hussein long ago and we would not have these problems," said Sheik Hamad, whose tiny Gulf country -- a close US ally -- adopted a constitution in a nationwide vote in April that gives its citizens new democratic rights.
Qatar's emir, though, retains most of the power and Sheik Hamad said he did not believe its people were ready for a constitutional monarchy. But Sheik Hamad said Qatar's reforms were in the early stages and would continue.
"Our people are frustrated by the lack of democracy," he said. "If we don't open the door [to peaceful reform], someone will break down the door."
While the Qatari official portrayed his nation's reforms as domestically driven, many in the audience -- including a Saudi woman who said she was afraid her conservative kingdom was being asked to democratize and modernize at dangerous "hyperspeed" -- expressed suspicion change was being enforced by the US.
America's credentials as a reformer also were questioned. The chaos and violence of post-Saddam Iraq was cited, as were accusations the US was sidelining Yasser Arafat, the elected leader of the Palestinian people.
"What has democracy done for the people who are downtrodden? Those are serious questions asked by the people," summed up Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, a panelist.
Moussa accused the US of planning the region's future without consulting its people or its leaders, and without giving Arabs credit for their own attempts to change.
Democracy "is a process and the process has started. There are elections all over the place," Moussa said. "We believe we have to link up with the 21st century, but it can never be imposed."
At a news conference, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab said that while politics would take most of the headlines at the conference, improving business and social conditions across the region were also important.