Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (left) greets Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby in Baghdad
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (left) greets Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby in Baghdad. After decades at the centre of the Arab world, Syria now sits in the dock with regional leaders meeting in Baghdad this week over how to end Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown on a popular uprising. © Hadi Mizban - AFP/Pool
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (left) greets Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby in Baghdad
Prashant Rao, AFP
Last updated: March 26, 2012

Syria tops Arab agenda at Iraq summit

After decades at the heart of the Arab world, Syria now sits in the dock as regional leaders meet in Baghdad this week over how to end President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on a popular uprising.

But wide disparities among Arab chiefs' positions may hamper any hope of an aggressive resolution from the meeting, the first in Iraq in more than 20 years and taking place under heavy security after deadly bombings just a week ago.

Crucially, the Arab League will have to reconcile a proposal by Gulf countries to arm opponents of Assad with calls from states such as Iraq for a political resolution to the year-long crackdown monitors say has left more than 9,100 dead.

"There is a mounting crisis in Syria, there is daily killing, there is daily bloodshed, there is a stalemate... in the political solution, what should be done," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters in Baghdad.

Zebari said there "will be a resolution definitely on Syria," but admitted that he did not "think there will be a call on Bashar to step aside."

Iraqi authorities have insisted that the summit will focus on structural reform of the Arab League in an effort to make the organisation more active, but Syria remains in the limelight, rocked by ongoing protests and deadly clashes, US and European sanctions and a UN human rights probe.

Syrian forces bombarded a rebel neighbourhood of Homs for a seventh straight day on Monday, monitors said, after Russia, whose President Dmitry Medvedev discussed the crisis with his US counterpart Barack Obama, warned Damascus it must act to avoid civil war.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, who met Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Monday, has told pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, however, that it was unlikely the meeting in Iraq would call for Assad to step down.

While events in Syria will be discussed, the crushing of protests in Bahrain is not on the agenda, Zebari confirmed, although he admitted the suppression last year of Shiite-led pro-democracy rallies in Bahrain was a concern.

The summit also marks a re-emergence of Iraq, hosting its first Arab League meeting since Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which triggered UN sanctions and was eventually followed by the 2003 US-led invasion.

"It is a big event, it is the most important event for Iraq, to host the Arab summit," Zebari said, calling it a "turning point for Iraq."

"It is a recognition of the new Iraq that has emerged since 2003."

More than 100,000 members of the security forces are providing security in the capital, according to the Baghdad Operations Command, and Iraq has spent upwards of $500 million to refurbish major hotels and summit venues.

Security forces in Diyala, a restive ethnically mixed province in central Iraq that borders Baghdad, imposed a vehicle ban across the province until further notice, with a roadside bomb killing two soldiers south of Diyala capital Baquba.

Despite the dramatically tighter security measures, Al-Qaeda's front group in Iraq managed to carry out a wave of nationwide attacks on March 20 that cost the lives of 50 people, including three killed in a car bomb that exploded opposite the foreign ministry.

Iraq expects at least 10 Arab leaders to attend the summit, but while some countries such as Lebanon have announced top-level representation, the majority of the bloc's 22 members have been tight-lipped over who will attend.

Saudi Arabia, which recently named its first envoy to Iraq since 1990, announced on Monday night that its delegation for the summit would be headed by its ambassador to the Arab League, Ahmed Qatan.

The summit was originally due to be held in Baghdad a year ago but was delayed by regional turmoil resulting from the Arab Spring uprisings, as well as concerns over violence in Iraq.

As a result of the revolts, many familiar faces will not attend: since the beginning of last year, Libya's Moamer Kadhafi has been killed, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak forced to step down, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh has handed power to his deputy and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has fled to Saudi Arabia.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and genocide, will head his country's delegation, but Zebari said he will not be arrested.

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