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Baghdad Hosts Arab League 'Summit Of Change'

A boy looks on while waiting for soldiers to finish searching a vehicle and his father at a checkpoint in central Baghdad ahead of the Arab League summit later this week.
A boy looks on while waiting for soldiers to finish searching a vehicle and his father at a checkpoint in central Baghdad ahead of the Arab League summit later this week.
Leaders of Arab League countries are gathering in Baghdad for a three-day summit -- the first of its kind in Iraq for more than two decades.

Iraqi officials say the gathering from March 27 to March 29 will focus on changes that have swept the region since the Arab Spring uprisings that began last year.

According to regional analysts, there should be a totally new dynamic at this year's meeting.

"This is going to be a very different Arab League summit from those in the past because we're now going to see Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia represented by the leaders of elected governments," says Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow on the Middle East and North Africa with Chatham House in London.

Kinninmont suggests that Egyptian and Tunisian governments dominated by popular Islamist movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood could bring something new to the discussions.

"[There's] also a lot of diversity in terms of age now," she adds. "Younger leaders [are] coming to the fore in some countries whereas others, notably Saudi Arabia, are being represented by a much older generation."

Syria's Long Shadow

The summit is expected to be dominated by talks on mounting violence in Syria -- including a debate on whether action should be taken against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on dissent.

The Arab Spring uprisings have broadened popular support for action in Arab countries where new governments are eager to court public favor.

Egypt, long an example of the regional status quo until last year's ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak, has backed action against Damascus.

Libya has gone a step further. Since the removal last year of Libya's strongman ruler Muammar Qaddafi, the new transitional government in Tripoli has recognized Syria's opposition as the legitimate government.

Leading criticism against Syria within the Arab League are Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- two Sunni-ruled oil-rich monarchies concerned about Syria's alliance with their chief regional rival, Shi'ite-ruled Iran.

Assad's regime will not be represented in Baghdad because Syria has been suspended from Arab League meetings in response to the crackdown, which monitors say has killed more than 9,000 people.

Sectarian Divisions?

Meanwhile, the governments of other Arab League countries like Iraq oppose direct intervention in Syria.

Kinninmont maintains that seriously differing points of view on Syria within the Arab League should not be attributed to sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.
Middle East specialist Jane Kinninmont
Middle East specialist Jane Kinninmont

"Certainly, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most vocal and the most critical of President Bashar al-Assad [but it] is not simply a sectarian difference," she says.

"[However] there is a concern that it could be going more that way because it is very likely that the Syrian regime is going to be deploying the sectarian card as it tries to battle for power."

Meanwhile, restructuring the Arab League also is on the summit agenda.

Indeed, there is growing frustration among ordinary Arabs about the Arab League's inability to come to a consensus on important issues.

The Iraqi government says the meeting will focus on structural reforms that make the Arab League more active.

'Cosmetic Tweaks'

But Kinninmont is skeptical that there will be a major breakthrough at the summit on internal reforms for the Arab League.

"It's not very clear that the reason the Arab World is weak is really because of structural problems," she says.

"I think it is more to do with the diversity of views among the member countries. The Arab League is not some equivalent of the European Union where countries have surrendered some of their sovereignty to be part of this collective. It is a club of Arab countries, but it doesn't have the ability to enforce judgments on member countries -- unlike the European Union.

"So I would imagine, if anything, that there is going to be some fairly cosmetic tweaks but not a lot of substantive change."

Observers conclude that a successful Arab League summit in Baghdad -- with Iraqi security forces preventing any major militant attacks in the capital -- will help Iraq demonstrate its recovery from years of violence and upheaval.

Ultimately, Baghdad officials hope that this will help Iraq become accepted again as a major player in Arab politics.

That is why it is sparing no expense to ensure it passes off without incident.

The exact location of the summit is still a secret and a number of other extraordinary security precautions are in place.

Government offices have been shut for the week around the three-day meeting so as to clear central Baghdad of much of its usually heavy traffic.

And the main avenues from the airport to downtown are secured by 100,000 heavily armed police and troops.

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