Arab leaders stay away from Baghdad summit
The turnout in Iraq by regional leaders wasn't very high for Thursday's meeting. But those who did show up appealed to the Syrian government to stop the violence.
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One reason for the absences was the Gulf leaders' deep distrust of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, which they believe is a proxy for Iran. In unusually direct remarks, Qatar's prime minister said the lower representation was to protest what he called the Baghdad government's marginalization of Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority.Skip to next paragraph
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Another reason was the bitterness surrounding the main issue hanging over the summit — the conflict in Syria — on which Iraq has taken an ambivalent stand.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, remained upbeat. He told a news conference at the end of the summit: "We are very comfortable with the level of representation considering the present conditions (in Iraq). The most important thing is that all Arab states participated. It was a historic summit."
He , however, reacted angrily when asked about the representation of Saudi Arabia and Qatar by their ambassadors to the Arab League in its Cairo headquarters.
"We are not concerned, we are not bothered as long as they came."
Arab leaders in the Gulf want tough action to stop the Syrian regime's bloody crackdown on the opposition, with their eye on ultimately bringing down President Basher Assad. If Assad goes, they hope, they can break Sunni-majority Syria out of its alliance with Iran. However, Iraq, which also has close ties to Iran, has resisted any strong measures by the Arab League on Syria, with Zebari saying he was opposed to foreign intervention there.
The summit is the first held by the 22-member League since the Arab Spring revolts began sweeping through the region more than a year ago. The turmoil forced the cancellation of last year's summit. Since then, four perennials of the summit have been swept from the scene — Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
The new leaders of Tunisia and Libya were among the 10 heads of state who attended, but Egypt and Yemen sent lower-level figures, a reflection of the domestic turmoil still roiling those nations.
The summit will also be remembered for an extraordinary precedent. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani became the first non-Arab to chair an Arab League summit. Talabani, a Kurd who speaks fluent Arabic and is well versed in Arab culture, has been a father figure to Iraqis since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, often acting as a unifier between the nation's rival ethnic and religious factions.