Lara Jakes and Hamza Hendawi
BAGHDAD: Sunni Muslim rulers largely shunned an Arab League summit hosted by Shiite-led Iraq on Thursday, illustrating how powerfully the sectarian split and the rivalry with Iran define Middle Eastern politics in the era of the Arab Spring.
The crisis in Syria is the epicenter of those divisions. The one-day summit closed with a joint call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop his bloody crackdown on an uprising seeking his ouster. But the final statement barely papered over the differences among the Arab nations over how to deal with the longest-running regional revolt.
“What disturbs the breeze of our Arab Spring and fills our hearts with sadness is the scenes of slaughter and torture committed by the Syrian regime against our brothers and sisters in Syria,” said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council.
In a snub to Iraq, only 10 heads of state from the Arab League’s 22 members attended, with the rest sending lower-level officials. Especially notable were the absences of the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and most other Gulf countries, as well as Morocco and Jordan — all of them headed by Sunni monarchs who deeply distrust the close ties between Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government and their top regional rival, Iran.
The Gulf countries also see Iraq as too soft on Syria. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have talked of arming Syria’s opposition, apparently eager to bring the fall of Assad and break the Sunni-majority country out of its alliance with Iran.
Speaking to the gathering, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged restraint, saying Baghdad opposes any military intervention and citing his country’s years of turmoil as an example of what happens when outside forces get involved in national struggles. U.S. forces left Iraq just over 100 days ago after nearly nine years of war and occupation.
“Iraq is afraid of the attempts to militarize the Arab uprisings, because this will deviate them from the right course and push toward the wrong position,” al-Maliki said. “Dialogue between the government and the opposition is the right option to solve the crisis.”
Tight security in Baghdad
Iraq’s hosting of the annual summit for the first time since 1990 was touted by Baghdad officials as a victory in their efforts to show the country is moving toward stability after years of sectarian fighting that almost tipped the nation into civil war. Thousands of security forces cleared the streets and locked down the capital in one of the quietest weeks in years, although officials said two Katyusha rockets hit near the fortified Green Zone where the summit was held just as diplomats convened. No casualties were reported.
The summit was the first since the wave of Arab Spring uprisings began sweeping the region more than a year ago, targeting its long-ruling strongmen. The 2011 summit was canceled because of the turmoil. There were two new faces at Thursday’s collection of heads of state: Libya’s Abdul-Jalil, who holds nominal power after the ouster and killing of Moammar Gadhafi, and Tunisia President Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist who was elevated after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The new leaders of Egypt and Yemen — the other two countries whose rulers fell last year — did not attend, a reflection of their continuing domestic troubles.
U.N. truce supported
The summit’s final resolution called on Assad’s regime to “immediately implement” Annan’s proposals. It also said Arab leaders fully support the “legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people to democracy and freedom and their right to determine their future.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner congratulated Iraq on the summit.
“From what we’ve seen, [it was] a success. They did talk about Syria and voiced their very strong support for Kofi Annan’s efforts,” he said. “All indications are that it ... has gone well and that Iraq should be proud of what it’s been able to accomplish in recent years. And we believe the hosting of this summit is indicative of its positive role in the region and among the community of nations.”