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Real triumph of Arab League summit: That it happened at all

The Arab League took little action to address Syria crisis, deferring to UN. But the summit, held in a renovated marble palace with gold-encrusted dates for dessert, still marked a triumph for host Iraq.

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The envoy from Saudi Arabia, a country that has largely resisted pressure for democratic reform, gave a brief speech saying the most pressing problem in the region was the need for economic changes. Bahrain, which helped thwart attempts to hold the summit here last year after Iraqi criticism of a crackdown on the Shiite majority, did not speak at all.

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A mending of Kuwaiti-Iraqi ties

Including Iraq, 10 of the 20 heads of state invited attended the summit – one more than diplomats had said would be needed for a credible turnout.  Those attending included Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the international Criminal Court for war crimes. Iraq had emphasized that he would not be arrested at the summit.

Mr. Bashir, seated to the right of President Talabani for a group photo in front of an iconic mural called ‘My Beloved Baghdad,’ was one of the few old-generation leaders among officials from transitional governments and ambassadors sent by countries still not ready to fully welcome Iraq back into the Arab fold.

Kuwait was the only Gulf country to send its head of state but the presence of the Kuwait emir was a major diplomatic leap for Iraq, still trying to repair relations with its neighbor more than 20 years after Saddam Hussein invaded the emirate.

In a scene unthinkable several years ago, Mr. Maliki greeted Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah at the airport with a traditional Arab embrace. The Kuwait emir in a speech at the summit thanked his Iraqi hosts and the Iraqi security forces for securing the summit.

In another sign of progress, on the eve of the summit Saudi Arabia presented its first ambassador posted to Iraq in more than 20 years.

'Not many people clapped' for Qatar

The other heads of state attending were the Palestinian Authority president, the head of Libya’s transitional authority and leaders of Lebanon, Somalia, Comoros, Djibouti, and Tunisia. Jordan, in a snub to its neighbor, sent only its prime minister in an apparent reflection of its own concerns over Iraq’s perceived marginalization of Sunnis and an attempt to improve its own relations with the wealthy Gulf states.

Qatar, angered over issues including the attempted arrest by Maliki’s government of Iraq’s Sunni vice president on terrorism charges, did not respond to the invitation until the last minute and then sent only an ambassador.

Qatar’s prime minister told Al Jazeera network on the eve of the summit that the low-level representation was meant to send “a message” to Iraq over Qatar’s concerns.

In a sign of its increasing political reach, Qatar sealed an agreement at Wednesday's meeting of foreign ministers for Oman to give up its right to hold next year’s summit, which will instead be held in Doha, the Qatari capital. Hosting the summit also carries the right to hold the Arab League presidency for the subsequent year. Qatar just finished a year as president of the League before handing off to Iraq this year.

“Not many people clapped,” said one diplomat at the meeting.

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