By Hamza Hendawi and Lara Jakes / AP
BAGHDAD: Fewer than half the leaders of the Arab world showed up at an Arab summit in Baghdad on Thursday, a snub to the Iraqi government that reflects how trenchantly the sectarian division between Sunnis and Shia and the rivalry with neighboring Iran define the Middle East’s politics today.
As the summit opened in a former palace of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the powerful Sunni monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other Gulf nations and Jordan and Morocco were absent.
The only ruler from the Gulf to attend was the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, whose attendance was significant because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and occupied it for nearly seven months before a US-led coalition drove his army out. Relations between the two neighbors have been fraught with tension since and even after Saddam’s 2003 ouster. Sheikh Al-Sabah’s attendance should cap recent improvement in relations.
One reason for the absences was the Gulf leaders’ deep distrust of Iraq’s Shia-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.
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.
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 Bashar 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 its foreign minister Hoshyar 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 Qadhafi.
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.
Another Iraqi Kurd, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, chaired Wednesday’s foreign ministers’ meeting.
Syria featured in addresses delivered by Arab leaders at the summit’s open session which lasted more than four hours.
The leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, spoke of the “scenes of torture and slaughter committed by the Syrian regime against our brothers and sisters in Syria.”
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby called on the Syrian regime to immediately implement a plan put forward by UN-Arab league envoy Kofi Annan and warned that the world was running out of patience with its failure to move toward a solution.
In his first comments on Annan’s plan, Assad says Syria will “spare no effort” to ensure the mission’s success, according to the state news agency. Assad said Annan must also get a commitment from armed groups to cease their “terrorist acts” against his government.
Talabani said Iraq rejected violence and bloodshed in Syria and called for a peaceful solution to end the conflict there and, echoing the language found in a draft communique from the summit, said the Syrian people had a legitimate right to freedom and democracy.
“The Syrian government is required today to listen to the voice of reason and wisdom and stop all kinds of violence,” said the emir of Kuwait.
Iraq had hoped that hosting the summit — its first Arab summit since 1990 — would herald its return to the Arab fold after two decades of isolation. But the absences and the ability of militants to launch attacks despite a massive security operation — a mortar hit an area not far from the summit’s venue as the meeting started — suggest that Iraq may still have some way to go before it could fully return to normalcy and reintegrate into the Arab world.
Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani, also the country’s foreign minister, told Al-Jazeera late Wednesday that his own nation’s low level of representation was a “message” to Iraq’s majority Shia to stop what he called the marginalization of minority Sunnis.
Majority Shia have dominated Iraq since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. The nation’s once powerful Sunnis complain that the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is concentrating power in the hands of the Shiites. There is a growing desire by Sunni-majority provinces to win autonomy as a way to escape Shia domination.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the sectarian violence that began shortly after Saddam’s ouster but peaked in 2006 and 2007. Tension continues to simmers to this day, with occasional attacks by Sunni militants against Shiites and crackdowns on Sunni areas by the Shiite-led security forces.
“Qatar wants the Iraqi government to resolve this in a way that unites the Iraqi people and gives everyone their rights through a dialogue involving all parties,” said the Qatari prime minister.
Relations between Iraq and the Gulf Arab nations have also been tense over criticism by Shiite Iraqi politicians and clerics of Bahrain’s crackdown on Shiite protesters the past year. The demonstrators seek more economic opportunity and an end to what they see as discrimination by the Sunni ruling family.
Al-Maliki on Wednesday met with Bahrain’s foreign minister on the sidelines of the summit. Foreign Minister Zebari later told reporters that Bahrain would not be on the summit’s agenda, a decision that appeared to be a concession by the hosts.
The flood of condemnations and denouncements of the Syrian regime in the opening session of the summit could only reinforce their view that it may be too late for diplomacy to bear fruit in Syria.
The Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been pushing behind the scenes for more assertive action to end the conflict. Privately, they see little benefit in the Arab League’s efforts to reach a peaceful settlement and prefer instead to see a small core of nations banding together to act on their own.
Among the options they are considering are arming the Syrian rebels and creating a safe haven for the opposition along the Turkish-Syrian border to serve as a humanitarian refuge or staging ground for anti-regime forces. Such a step would require help from Turkey — the country best positioned to defend such a safe haven — but so far Ankara has seemed reluctant.
For Gulf nations, removing Assad would almost certainly break Syria’s alliance with Iran, disrupting the sphere of Tehran’s influence that now extends from Iraq and across Syria to the shores of the Mediterranean. Syria’s Sunni majority makes up the bulk of the uprising. Assad’s regime is dominated by his own Alawite sect, a minority offshoot of Shia Islam.–AP reporters Qassim Abdeul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.