Unhappy with Iraq, Sunni leaders skip the summit

Iraq has looked to the Arab League summit to signal its emergence from years of turmoil, American occupation and isolation.

BAGHDAD // The Arab League summit was part denial, part extravaganza, a great deal of symbolism and hardly a breakthrough for Iraq.

Only 10 leaders of the 22-member league showed up in Baghdad for their annual meeting. The emir of Kuwait was the only Gulf Cooperation Council leader in attendance, cementing a recent thaw in relations with Iraq, his country's invader and brief occupier in 1990-91. The leaders of Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen were among the notable absentees from outside the GCC.

"We are very satisfied with the level of representation ... the most important thing is that all Arab states participated," declared Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. "It was a historic summit."

Iraq has looked to the summit, the first it has hosted in a generation, to signal its emergence from years of turmoil, American occupation and isolation. It wanted the summit to herald its return to the Arab fold. But the large number of absentees told a different story.

Iraq's Shiite majority has dominated the nation since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003 and many, inside and outside Iraq, believe the country's newly empowered Shiites are not permitting a genuine power-sharing with the once-powerful minority Sunnis. The country, where Sunni-Shiite tensions simmer after years of sectarian violence, also has forged close ties with Iran, a Shiite nation whose policies and disputed nuclear programme are viewed with suspicion by most Arab nations.

Additionally, Iraq's ambivalent stand on the Syrian conflict has been a source of concern for Arab countries that mostly agree Bashar Al Assad's regime must go.

Yet, Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, may have stunned his Arab guests when he told them his government's handling of Iraq's sectarian conflict "can be an example to follow in other Arab nations".

Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr Al Thani, had a different take on Mr Al Maliki's handling of his country's diverse ethnic and religious make-up. In unusually direct remarks on the eve of the summit, he said his nation's mid-level representation at the summit was a "message" to Iraq protesting what he called its marginalisation of Iraq's Sunnis.

"We do not agree with all what goes on in terms of the political process inside Iraq; we believe a particular sect is targeted," he told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.

Hosting the summit could also have domestic consequences for Baghdad. The estimated cost of the event ranged between US$500 million (Dh1.84bn) and three times that, a hefty sum in a country where most residents get less than 12 hours of electricity a day and where health and education services are starved of cash. Not far from the summit's venue are districts where sewage runs in open canals outside homes.

The massive security operation also led to a dramatic rise in the price of many food items, particularly vegetables because farmers could not get produce to the city.

Authorities disabled the mobile network as a security precaution, but could not stop militants from firing two Katyusha rockets that landed not far from the summit's venue but caused no casualties.

That venue, a palace once used by Saddam, was a manifestation of the government overspending to impress its guests. Copious amounts of sumptious food were served to 2,000 people, mostly Iraqi journalists. The Turkish company that won the contract to feed the guests also took over several state-owned hotels in the city.

The 20-kilometre stretch between the airport and the summit venue in the Green Zone, once the headquarters of Iraq's American occupiers and now home to Mr Al Maliki's office, was given a facelift, complete with freshly planted palm trees and lush green lawns.

The road was also resurfaced and the concrete barrier walls surrounding the Sunni neighbourhoods on either side of the road - a legacy of the sectarian violence - received a fresh coat of paint.

In a televised address yesterday, Mr Al Maliki said the summit signalled a shift in Iraq's relations with the Arab world. But the absence of so many Arab leaders pointed in a different direction.

The Baghdad summit exposed the divisions in the Arab world over Syria. Iraq steered clear from calls for Mr Al Assad to step down when a majority of Arab countries see his departure as an absolute necessity to stop the bloodshed.

Addressing the summit, Mr Al Maliki urged restraint and voiced opposition to military intervention.

"Iraq is afraid of the attempts to militarise the Arab uprisings, because this will deviate them from the right course and push towards the wrong position," he said. "Dialogue between the government and the opposition is the right option to solve the crisis."