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Landmark Arab summit in Iraq with Syria the focus

31 march 2012, 13:14
Arab leaders. ©AFP
Arab leaders. ©AFP
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, AFP reports.

With 100,000 security forces standing guard in the Iraqi capital, officials took unprecedented measures to prevent attacks, by closing off a large swathe of the city's roads and mobile phone networks, and shutting down its airport and surrounding airspace to commercial traffic.

And with the country having suffered deadly violence just last week, just one attack has been reported since Tuesday's meeting of economy and finance ministers, a low figure by Baghdad's often brutal standards.

Six visiting Arab leaders as well as UN chief Ban Ki-moon had arrived in Baghdad by Thursday morning for the summit, which regional officials have pushed to focus on a wide variety of issues, ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to jumpstarting the area's economy.

The focus, however, has been on Syria, and officials say Arab leaders will stop short of calling for Assad's ouster.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari's confirmed Wednesday evening that the summit of the 22-member Arab League will steer clear of the strong moves advocated by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to resolve the Syria crisis.

The UN says more than 9,000 people have been killed in a bloody crackdown by Syrian forces on a year-long revolt.

"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."

It "is up to the people of Syria to decide, to choose, to elect their leaders. It's not up to the League or to anybody else," he said.

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 which have called for Assad to leave and advocated sending arms to rebel groups against those pushing for political reconciliation, such as Iraq.

Iraqi leaders have said 10 visiting regional leaders will attend the summit, following two days of meetings of Arab economy and foreign ministers, including neighbouring emirate Kuwait.

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

Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani meanwhile said in an interview with Al-Jazeera, excerpts of which were posted on the network's website, that his country was sending a "message" to Iraq's leadership by reducing its representation at the Arab Summit to a minimum.

The premier 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.

Qatar is represented at the summit by its ambassador to the Cairo-based Arab League, Saif bin Muqaddam.

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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