Karim Kadim/AP
Arab leaders pose for a group photo ahead of the opening session of the Arab League summit in Baghdad, Iraq, March 29. The annual Arab summit meeting opened in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Thursday with only 10 of the leaders of the 22-member Arab League in attendance and amid a growing rift between Arab countries over how far they should go to end the one-year conflict in Syria.

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.

Iraq held a historic summit of Arab leaders yesterday showcasing the post-war new Iraq but illustrating old rivalries in a region grappling with revolutionary change.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani opened the summit bidding the heads of state and other officials a “friendly welcome” to the “city of peace” shortly after a rocket exploded just outside the Green Zone where the leaders were meeting.

But the attacks, lackluster attendance, and an ineffectual statement on Syria did not detract from Iraq’s triumph at conducting the summit for the first time since 1990, after it was twice delayed over security worries and anger by the Sunni Muslim Gulf states at Iraq’s Shiite-led government.

“My brothers, it was an impossible dream that we meet you in Baghdad less than three years ago,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told leaders gathered in a gleaming restored palace. “Baghdad was a ghost town, its institutions abandoned, mosques and churches in ruins … neighborhoods isolated and hospitals full of the dead and wounded.”

A very different city greeted visiting officials this week, who were whisked from the airport through empty streets closed to traffic to a red carpet that led into the marble palace. Turkish waiters served champagne glasses of juice next to towers of sweets. In a symbol of Iraqi aspirations to meet the standards of the oil-rich Gulf, the summit banquet included dates coated in a paper-thin layer of pure gold.

The improvements reflected Iraq's more than $500 million investment to improve roads, buy fleets of armored vehicles, and renovate hotels and the sprawling palace built for the Iraqi monarchy, expanded by Saddam Hussein, and occupied by US authorities. Iraqis outside the Green Zone have seen little of that largesse, however.

Agenda focused on Syria crisis

The violence in Syria dominated an agenda which also discussed combating terrorism and, as it has every year since the league’s inception, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon urged Syria to immediately implement a proposed peace plan it has now accepted.

Despite its warnings against international intervention, the Arab League, deeply split over how much pressure to exert over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, seemed to welcome handing over responsibility for the file.

“The [UN] Security Council is the sole party that has the authority to issue binding decisions,” Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi told reporters after the summit. “Now the Syrian file has been sent to the security council. It will be studied and solutions will be recommended and the ball is in Syria’s court.”

Apart from Syria, the public speeches and declaration made little mention of major conflicts within the member states. Some, such as Bahrain, are battling unrest amid calls for more rights for its Shiite majority. 

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.

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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