Qatar Says Iraq Will Be Democracy Test Case; Emir Says Successful U.S. Efforts Could Transform the Middle East

Article excerpt

Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The establishment of a successful democracy in postwar Iraq could transform attitudes across the Arab world toward the United States, according to Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, emir of the oil-rich state of Qatar and a key U.S. ally in the recent war against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

"If the United States managed to help establish democracy in Iraq, as it used to be in the 1920s, I think that would be the greatest step that could be taken both for America and for the whole Middle East," the emir said yesterday in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

"Arabs now consider the Americans as invaders," he said, "but they never liked Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis themselves never liked Saddam. They have hopes that the United States can build democracy in Iraq, but still they also have their doubts."

The emir, who provided vital logistical and basing help to U.S. and coalition forces in the recent war in Iraq, was capping off a Washington visit, highlighted by a lengthy private meeting Wednesday with President Bush at the White House and talks with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Middle East policy yesterday.

President Bush effusively praised the emir's support before their White House meeting. Mr. Powell said yesterday that he hoped to visit Qatar before the end of this year.

Sheik al-Thani said U.S.-Qatari relations are based on complete "transparency" and on a willingness of the emirate to voice its support for Washington in a region where many countries have kept their distance from the United States.

"When the United States was in need of [support] in its campaign against Iraq, we were the only country that would declare its position clearly regarding that subject," the emir said.

He declined to say whether Qatar would offer similar support if military action is undertaken against other regional states, including Syria and Iran, saying only that he was determined to preserve his country's "distinguished relationship" with the United States.

Despite its tiny size - slightly smaller than Connecticut - the peninsula nation jutting into the Persian Gulf has cast an outsized political and strategic shadow since Sheik al-Thani took power from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995.

The 53-year-old emir, a graduate of the British military academy Sandhurst, has emerged as the most overtly pro-U.S. figure among Arab Gulf leaders, often to the consternation of his country's neighbors.

The U.S. central theater command for the Iraq war was based at a site just outside the Qatari capital of Doha, and Qatari officials have long allowed the Pentagon to warehouse military equipment at Camp As Sayliyah.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced late last month that most of the 5,000 U.S. troops based in Saudi Arabia will be removed and that the Pentagon's new regional air operations base will relocate to Qatar's al-Udeid base. The shift was seen as confirmation of Qatar's new leading role as a prime U.S. ally among Gulf Arab states.

The emir has also spearheaded some startling political reforms in his eight years in power, bankrolling the creation of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera broadcasting network in 1996, stressing education improvements and links to U. …