Ban arrived in Baghdad Thursday morning for the summit
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (C) addresses reporters during a news conference at the foreign ministry in Kuwait City March 28. Arab leaders will stop short of calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit on Thursday in Baghdad, with the city locked down for its first major regional summit in a generation. © Yasser al-Zayyat - AFP
Ban arrived in Baghdad Thursday morning for the summit
Wissam Keyrouz, AFP
Last updated: March 29, 2012

Landmark Arab summit in Iraq with Syria the focus

Arab leaders met in Baghdad Thursday for a landmark summit, which included the first visit by a Kuwaiti emir since Iraq's 1990 invasion, but will stop short of calling for Syria's president to quit.

As the summit got underway, Syrian security forces assailed rebel strongholds across the country after the regime of President Bashar al-Assad made it clear it would not abide by any Arab League initiatives.

And while nine Arab leaders and UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in the Iraqi capital, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the two states seeking the most aggressive measures on the Syria crisis, sent only envoys in what Qatar admitted was a "message" to the hosts.

The summit, the first of its kind to take place in Baghdad since Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, spurred authorities to effectively lock down the city, with 100,000 security forces on alert, and officials to close down swathes of roads and mobile networks and shut down air space.

And though Iraq suffered violence that killed 50 people just last week, only one attack has been reported in the capital since Tuesday's meeting of economy and finance ministers, a relatively low figure by Baghdad's often-brutal standards.

While regional officials have pushed to focus on a wide variety of issues, ranging from the Arab-Israel conflict to jumpstarting the 22-member bloc's economies, the focus has been on Syria, where monitors say nearly 10,000 people have died in a year-long revolt against Assad's rule.

Arab leaders have said, however, that the summit will not call for Assad to quit, and will not consider arming the rebels against him.

They will call for talks between the Syrian government and opposition based on a six-point peace plan proposed by UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan, according to a draft copy of the Baghdad Declaration obtained by AFP.

The region's leaders "denounce the violence, murder and bloodshed, and are in favour of a political solution via national dialogue," said the document, to be issued after the summit.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday that the summit would steer clear of strong moves advocated by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to resolve the Syria crisis.

"The Arab League initiative is clear and did not demand that Bashar step down, Zebari said after a ministerial meeting. "We (foreign ministers) also did not ask for that and the upcoming decision will not go in this direction."

Asked whether the arming of Syrian rebels was raised, Zebari said: "We did not discuss this subject at all."

The two issues have pitted countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have called for Assad to leave and advocated sending arms to rebel groups against those pushing for political reconciliation, such as Iraq.

The two Gulf countries sent only their Arab League envoys to the summit in what the Qatari prime minister said was a "message" to Iraq's leadership.

Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said he would have wanted the level of representation to be higher "but we will sit with them in the future and talk," he added. He did not elaborate.

Nine regional leaders, including the Kuwaiti emir, who was on the first visit by a Kuwaiti head of state in more than 20 years, arrived in the Iraqi capital for Thursday's summit, which followed two days of meetings of Arab economy and foreign ministers.

Now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait came just months after Baghdad hosted its last Arab summit.

State television showed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki greet Kuwait's Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah at Baghdad airport and the pair walking hand-in-hand down a red carpet on the tarmac.

Egypt's Arab League ambassador, Afifi Abdel Wahab, told journalists that the pan-Arab body's next summit will be held in the Qatari capital Doha.

More than 100,000 members of Iraq's forces are providing security in Baghdad, and Iraq has spent upwards of $500 million to refurbish major hotels, summit venues and infrastructure.

Despite the dramatically tighter measures, a suicide bomber at a police checkpoint in west Baghdad killed one policeman and wounded two others on Tuesday, officials said.

A week ago, Al-Qaeda attacks nationwide killed 50 people, including three in a car bombing opposite the foreign ministry.

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