Hosting Arab leaders, Iraq tries to return to fold
BAGHDAD (AP) — A summit of Arab leaders, held here for the first time in a generation, is a prime opportunity for Iraq to reassert itself as a political player in the Arab world after years of war, isolation and American occupation.
It also puts Iraq's Shiite leadership under pressure to pick a side in the bitter sectarian politics dividing the region. The top item on the agenda — the crisis in Syria — is seen by Iraq's suspicious Arab brethren as a litmus test of whether Baghdad is with them or with their top rival, Shiite-led Iran.
Sunni-dominated Arab states will push Baghdad to support tough action against Syrian President Bashar Assad. At the same time, Iraq will be wary of angering Iran, which is the top ally of Assad and close to the Shiite politicians leading Iraq's government.
And Iraq must navigate that dilemma while trying to fend off deadly attacks like the ones last week in Baghdad and across the country that killed 46 people and wounded more than 200.
Iraq hopes the three-day Arab League summit, which begins Tuesday, will silence worldwide concerns about the fledgling democracy's stability after years of bloodshed. But the string of attacks raises fears al-Qaida and other militants will target the summit to embarrass Iraq and prove how shaky its security remains.
"We are trying to walk a thin line but have our national interests at heart," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. "We live in a tough neighborhood."
Zebari, a Kurd, says the summit's timing "could not have been more perfect."
Given the tensions around Syria, Iran and Gulf states, the summit "is the one most important event to take place at such a vital time ... and in the heart of the Middle East, the soul of the Middle East," Zebari said. "It will attract a lot of attention."
As it prepares for the estimated $400 million pageant, downtown Baghdad looks little like the battle-ravaged capital it has been for years. Freshly planted flowers adorn squares and parks across the capital. Roads have been repaved, trash swept up, buildings repaired and painted, and brightly colored lights drape trees and streets.
Baghdad has not hosted an Arab summit since 1990, only two months before then-ruler Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. After that, Iraq was all but ejected from the Arab fold, put under years of international sanctions, then mired in the near-civil war that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and fall of Saddam.
Iraq has emerged turned upside-down politically, ruled by the Shiite majority that was long oppressed under Saddam's Sunni-led regime.
The upheaval has left resentments and suspicions on all sides. Iraq's Shiites accuse the Arab League's 22 member states of doing nothing to help them under Saddam's repression and of still refusing to accept their right to their newfound political power.
"The Arab leaders will meet for a few hours and they will come out with nothing," said Shiite lawmaker Jawad al-Hassnawi, a follower of the hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is currently studying religion in Iran. "All the previous Arab summits were a mere failure and we expect this one in Baghdad to be no different."
Arab states, particularly the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, suspect Iraq's Shiite government of being a proxy for their enemy, Iran. As a result, they have been cool or outright resistant to building relations with Baghdad.
Most Gulf rulers are likely to stay away from the summit and send lower-level officials instead in a show of their wariness toward Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Officials across the Persian Gulf did not respond requests for comment.
At the summit, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar are expected to use Syria as a way to push al-Maliki "and see where his real loyalties lie," said Ken Pollack, an expert at the Brookings Institute think-tank in Washington.
Angering the Gulf states risks cutting off Iraq from the rest of the Arab world and its investment power. It could also anger Iraq's Sunni minority, who complain about being sidelined and threaten to divide the country by creating their own autonomous states.
But Iraq cannot turn its back on Iranian interests. Iran supplies Iraq with much-needed electricity and water, which helps tamp down public anger toward the government during the searing summer months. Al-Maliki kept his post in 2010 only after Tehran encouraged hard-line Shiite leaders to support him.
"This is a very risky summit for al-Maliki," said Pollack, who was a key Iraq policymaker in the Clinton administration. "My guess is if the Sunni states really screw him to the wall, he will choose the Iranians. Because at the end of the day, he hasn't been able to count on the Sunni Arab states."
So far, Iraq has been reluctant to crack down on Assad's regime while the Arab League has suspended Damascus and imposed sanctions on it for its bloody campaign to crush the anti-Assad uprising. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most outspoken in demanding the removal of the Syrian leader, seeing an opportunity to rob Iran of its biggest foothold in the Arab world.
Syria is not invited to the summit. Iran is not a League member and does not attend.
A major test for the summit's success will be how many heads of state show up.
Over the last few months, al-Maliki has launched a charm offensive with Arab states. Baghdad has settled a long-standing airlines lawsuit with Kuwait for $500 million; agreed to a prisoner exchange with Saudi Arabia; and paid Egypt $500 million to compensate Egyptian workers in Iraq. It has also restored full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and Libya.
Those olive branches were offered partly in hopes of drawing as many leaders as possible, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue frankly.
Foreign Minister Zebari said he would be satisfied if at least eight attend. He said so far six have confirmed, including the Kuwaiti emir.
Among Iraqis, the summit is getting a lukewarm welcome. Shopkeepers have raised prices on goods because of security measures that shut down streets across Baghdad in hopes of keeping people in their neighborhoods. Clerics have questioned the summit's price tag while most Iraqis live in poverty.
"The whole thing will be a waste of money and resources to serve the personal ambitions of al-Maliki," said government employee Osama al-Obeidi, a Sunni in the Baghdad neighborhood of Azamiyah.
Zebari insisted the summit will bring a very real benefit, forcing the Arab world to recognize "the new Iraq."
"It really will be the final test for all these counties to deal with Iraq in a more respectful way and recognize what the Iraqi people have decided for themselves."
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Barbara Surk in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.