Hosting Arab leaders, Iraq tries to return to fold

By LARA JAKES, Associated Press

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.

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