Sum­mit in Iraq noted for its low at­ten­dance

Lead­ers’ ab­sence a sign of lin­ger­ing ri­val­ries

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY HAMZA HEN­DAWI AND

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 Shi­ites 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, Sheik Sabah Al Ah­mad Al Sabah, whose at­ten­dance was sig­nif­i­cant be­cause Sad­dam in­vaded Kuwait in 1990 and oc­cu­pied it for nearly seven months be­fore a U.s.-led coali­tion drove his army out.

Re­la­tions be­tween the two neigh­bors have been fraught with ten­sion since, even af­ter Sad­dam’s 2003 ouster. Sheik Al Sabah’s at­ten­dance should cap re­cent im­prove­ment in re­la­tions.

One rea­son for the ab­sences was the Gulf lead­ers’ deep dis­trust of Iraq’s Shi­ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment, which they thinks 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 Mr. 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 Iraqi 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 Gad­hafi.

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.

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 still may have some way to go be­fore it could fully re­turn to nor­malcy and rein­te­grate into the Arab world.

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