Arab summit a symbolic win for Iraq, but with no breakthrough on Syria

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 29, 2012 

BAGHDAD — Arab leaders who gathered Thursday in Baghdad broke no new ground on Syria or other regional crises, but their summit was still hailed as a success — for returning Iraq to the Arab fold after years of isolating war and occupation.

Ten of the Arab League's 22 member nations sent a head of state to the summit, most notably Kuwait, whose emir traded ceremonial kisses with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a rapprochement that comes two decades after Saddam Hussein invaded that tiny neighbor in a provocation that sparked the first Persian Gulf War.

Other Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar sent pointedly lower-level delegations, but none of them boycotted the summit, which was organized by Iraq's ruling Shiite Muslims and Kurds, whom many Sunni leaders have shunned since the U.S.-led invasion swept them into power.

"This is a country that was distanced, overlooked, boycotted and sanctioned. And now it is back," a triumphant Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told journalists after the summit.

With Syria and other sectarian-tinged conflicts still dividing Arab nations, no one would call the member states' relations warm. However, the very presence of Gulf notables as guests of Shiites in a palace that was once the headquarters of the American occupation was a milestone for Iraq, and an achievement for an Arab League caught in the limbo between the old authoritarian order and a new crop of revolutionaries-turned-leaders.

The lack of disruptive violence also gave a boost to Iraq's security forces, which have struggled to stop sporadic bombings that still plague the country after the U.S. military's withdrawal at the end of 2011.

Security measures for the conference were extraordinary even in Baghdad's typical warren of blast walls and checkpoints. The capital was virtually shut down, with no civilian vehicle traffic and cellphone signals jammed in many areas, frustrating ordinary Iraqis who won't directly benefit from the conference.

Authorities noted three separate rocket attacks — barely a blip by Iraq's grim standards. They all occurred away from the conference site and with no apparent casualties, according to news reports.

"It was an impossible dream to meet you here in Baghdad," Maliki told the gathering in his welcoming speech. "Until three years ago, Baghdad was a city of ghosts, its neighborhoods isolated, its universities closed, its streets empty and its hospitals filled with martyrs and the wounded."

The conference also was remarkable for the absences of former Arab League stalwarts — Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh and Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, all autocrats who were swept aside in last year's Arab Spring uprisings.

Syria's chair was conspicuously vacant in the ornate hall. It was the only member nation not in attendance, uninvited because the league has suspended it over President Bashar Assad's bloody, yearlong crackdown on protesters.

The Arab League's annual summit is notorious for its toothless proclamations, and the muted response to the Syrian crisis appeared to follow that tradition. With its own series of proposals to stanch the Syrian bloodshed stalled, the Arab League on Thursday essentially relinquished the matter to the U.N. Security Council.

"The Security Council is the sole party that has the authority to issue binding decisions. 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," said Arab League chief Nabil al Araby, an Egyptian.

Member states refused to demand Assad's ouster, dialing back on a call in January for the president to hand over authority to a deputy and begin a transition that would culminate in elections supervised by Arab and international monitors.

Now, Arab leaders are pinning hopes on U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general whose own initiative calls for an immediate ceasefire by both government and rebels, a withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from residential areas, humanitarian aid, prisoner releases and more access for journalists.

Assad has agreed to Annan's six-point plan, but there's little confidence from leaders in the West or the Middle East — and none among Syrian opposition activists — that the regime will abide by the peace plan.

"The government has failed to protect its people and to rise to the level of their ambitions and aspirations, and now it's conducting military attacks and the crisis is getting worse," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who attended the summit as a guest, told the Arab leaders. "It's not enough to make commitments, but commitments should be translated into actions and implementation."

White House spokesman Jay Carney in Washington also expressed skepticism. "We've seen a lot of empty rhetoric from Assad and his government, a lot of promises that were never fulfilled and never meant to be fulfilled," he said.

There were efforts to deal with topics other than Syria. The Saudi envoy, whose government has urged arming the Syrian rebels, didn't even mention Syria in a brief speech calling for regional economic reform.

Others dwelled on the stagnant Palestinian peace process, a perennial agenda item for the annual summits, or the need for better counterterrorism cooperation among member states.

There are worries, especially among Iraq's secular Shiites and Sunni Arab minority, that the Baghdad hospitality would be short-lived and that the country's Shiite leaders would return to their longtime allies in Iran, enemy No. 1 to Gulf states, once the visiting Arab dignitaries had departed.

Ismael Zayer, a pro-government commentator and editor of the Baghdad newspaper Sabah al Jadid, said that Iran was too busy with its domestic problems and Syria to meddle in Iraq at the same level it did a few years ago. And, he said, Iraq wouldn't squander the high-profile position the summit has earned it among fellow Arab states.

Zayer noted, with a laugh, that one of the rockets fired Thursday landed just outside the Iranian diplomatic compound in Baghdad.

"See what good guys we are?" he said. "The only bullet fired during the summit was at the Iranian Embassy."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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