Gulf rulers absent from Iraq summit
Published 29/03/2012 | 13:02
Fewer than half the leaders of the Arab world have turned up at an Arab summit in Baghdad in a snub to the Iraqi government which reflects how sectarian divisions between Sunnis and Shiites and the rivalry with neighbouring Iran define Middle East politics.
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 US-led coalition drove his army out. Subsequent relations have been fraught.
One reason for the absences was the Gulf leaders' deep distrust of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, which they believe is a proxy for Iran. In unusually direct remarks, Qatar's prime minister said the lower representation was in protest at what he called the Baghdad government's marginalisation 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.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, remained upbeat, telling a news conference at the end of the summit: "We are very comfortable with the level of representation considering the present conditions (in Iraq). The most important thing is that all Arab states participated."
Asked about the representation of Saudi Arabia and Qatar by their ambassadors to the Arab League in its Cairo headquarters, he said: "We are not concerned, we are not bothered, as long as they came."
A flood of condemnations and denouncements of the Syrian regime in the opening session of the summit could only reinforce their view that it may be too late for diplomacy to bear fruit in Syria.
The Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been pushing behind the scenes for more assertive action to end the conflict. Privately, they see little benefit in the Arab League's efforts to reach a peaceful settlement and prefer instead to see a small core of nations banding together to act on their own.
Among the options they are considering are arming the Syrian rebels and creating a safe haven for the opposition along the Turkish-Syrian border to serve as a humanitarian refuge or staging ground for anti-regime forces. Such a step would require help from Turkey, but so far Ankara has seemed reluctant.