Ali Haider/AP
The empty seat of the Syrian delegate is seen during the meeting of Arab economic, finance, and trade ministers as part of the Arab League Summit in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday.

Iraq Arab League summit opens with eyes on Syria

Baghdad, hosting its first Arab league summit since 1990, is hoping to show the region Iraq has put its troubles behind it. But nervous eyes are focused elsewhere, on Syria.

Iraq opened an Arab League summit Tuesday overshadowed by the war in Syria but aimed at proving that it has emerged from the ruins of war and the legacy of Saddam Hussein.

The gathering of Arab leaders, held under intense security, is the first in Baghdad since shortly before Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and set Iraq on a path of isolation in the Arab world.

“It is a big event – it is the most important event for Iraq to host the Arab summit and it is a recognition of the new Iraq that has emerged since 2003,” said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who has worked [for more than a year] to repair relations with the Arab world. “This country was isolated many, years ago that’s why this is a very, very important thing.”

Koffi Annan, the UN special envoy for Syria, will fly to Baghdad to brief Arab leaders on Syria’s acceptance of a UN peace plan and the way forward, says a senior Arab official. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will also attend.

Syria’s acceptance of Mr. Annan’s proposed plan Tuesday could cause more rifts among Arab leaders, already split over how to end the bloodshed. Arab countries are divided between the Gulf states and others skeptical that Syria will fulfill its promises. Those countries are pushing for more pressure against the Syrian president while others insist on a Syrian solution.

Iraq, which now takes over the presidency of the Arab League for the coming year, falls into the latter camp.

“I don’t think there will be a call for Bashar to step aside but we will support a [Syrian] political process ... that will lead to change of the regime peacefully,” Mr. Zebari told reporters this week.

Civil war

Iraq, apart from Syria the only Arab country with a Shiite-led government, worries that intervention could push Syria further into civil war.

Thursday’s summit marks Iraq’s political return to an Arab world dominated by Sunni Arab governments and still deeply suspicious of Shiite-led Iraq’s ties with Iran. In one of the biggest signs of Baghdad’s diplomatic leap forward, Kuwait’s emir has said he will attend the summit.

On the eve of the finance ministers’ meeting that precedes the summit, Saudi Arabia’s first ambassador to Iraq in two decades presented his credentials to the foreign ministry.

Iraqi officials say nine of the 21 countries invited have confirmed they will send their head of state while most others will send senior officials. Syria was suspended from the Arab League last year.

Seen by outsiders as a diplomatic detail, the seniority of those attending is a crucial and closely-watched barometer of diplomatic ties. Nine heads of state in attendance is a credible number for Arab summits which rarely have more than a dozen of the 22 appearing. According to officials, attendance is a guessing game until the last moment for the countries involving, depending on who else has agreed to attend or is expected to.

Although Qatar, as current head of the Arab League, would normally be expected to have the head of state present to hand over that position, the Gulf state is expected to send a much lower-level official.

“I think there is a tension between the Qatari position on Syria and the Iraqi position, and I think they will probably not want to reward Iraq to that extent,” said a senior Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There would be some reluctance on the part of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states for Maliki to be seen as a huge victor.”

Baghdad has undergone a $550 million facelift for the summit, much of it aimed at renovating the palace where leaders will meet, the city’s rundown hotels, and the roads leading to the Green Zone seen by Arab delegations as they are whisked from the airport. In the Green Zone, strings of colored neon lights wind around newly planted palm trees along the wide, empty streets. The Iraqi government has brought in a Turkish hotel chain to oversee the hotels and conference venue. Rixos hotels says lunch for the heads of state will include 24-carat gold-covered dates.

Police presence

Tens of thousands of soldiers and police have been sent to Iraq from the provinces to be deployed around the city. With the streets almost impassible, the Iraqi government has declared a week-long holiday for government offices and schools.

The civic projects are cosmetic changes, though, to a country and city broken after a decade of sanctions that gutted Iraq’s infrastructure, the war that toppled Saddam, and the sectarian violence that ripped the country apart.

In contrast to gatherings of Arab leaders in previous years which have turned into shouting matches, this summit is expected to be less dramatic but no less meaningful.

“I think Syria is as close as you get to having a bust-up,” says the senior Western diplomat. “As long as there is a respectable sprinkling of heads of state, as long as there isn’t a major security incident I think that will be a big success for Iraq and I think it will be an achievement.”

The meeting will also be the first summit bringing together new leaders swept in through democratic reforms of the Arab Spring with the old guard who have been in place for decades.

For Iraq, which had to delay the summit for a year due to security concerns and continued diplomatic isolation, proving it can host the meeting in Baghdad will constitute a success.

“Holding the summit is a milestone in Iraq – we don’t care if they agree on anything,” says one government official.

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