Arab summit marks new Iraq
- Last Updated: 12:34 AM, March 17, 2012
- Posted: 10:16 PM, March 16, 2012
The hot game in Baghdad teahouses these days is called “Guess who’s coming to the banquet?”
The banquet in question is the Arab League summit scheduled for March 29 in the Iraqi capital. The guests who may or may not turn up are the 21 kings, emirs, sultans and presidents who rule more than 300 million Arabs from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
For the past 40 years, Iraq has dreamt of hosting such a do; each time, there was a hitch in the form of the wars provoked by Saddam Hussein. After liberation in 2003, the new Iraq — trying to accommodate the US presence while fighting various terrorist groups — couldn’t even think of a summit.
Iraqis have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new conference hall and sumptuous villas to house the guests. They have mobilized 100,000 troops to protect the center of Baghdad, the former Green Zone, where the summit is to be held. A two-day holiday will allow Iraqis to watch the proceedings live on TV.
Until the Arab Spring changed the political landscape, Arab leaders were reluctant to improve relations with Iraq. The oil-rich states of the Gulf were concerned about the spread of the democratic contagion from Iraq. Jealous of Iraq as a rival for Arab leadership, Egypt was equally cool. Syria, where the Ba’ath Party is in power, did all it could to destabilize new Iraq.
Now the wheel of fortune has turned.
Long the land of suicide-attacks and sectarian killings, Iraq has suddenly become the only major Arab country with a modicum of stability.
In Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, new governments led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists are groping in the dark. In Algeria, the general election in May could trigger a new crisis. And Jordan’s tottering monarchy is in no position to host a summit.
Syria, meanwhile, is in the midst of a revolution, while Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon is a no-go area for Arab leaders.
Thus has Iraq ended up as the least-worst of several bad options.
It’s looking like a curious summit in many ways.
For the first time, an ethnic Kurd, Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, would be in the chair with a Shiite-led government playing the host. Another ethnic Kurd, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, is writing the agenda.
Iraqi leaders hope that the summit will mark the end of Arabs’ undeclared boycott of the new Iraq. They hope to reassure the Gulf states that Iraq has abandoned old claims against Kuwait and will do nothing to destabilize the region’s petro-monarchies.
Iraq is also addressing the concerns of Sunni-dominated Arab states about what they see as the Iranian attempt to create a “Shi’ite Crescent” including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Iraqis have rejected a demand from Iran (not an Arab nation and thus not a member of the Arab League) to be invited as an observer.
Tehran is sore that Iraq has invited other observers, including the UN secretary-general, the secretary-general of the Islamic Conference Organization and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
More important: Despite pressure from Tehran, Iraq has refused to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to Iraq’s Zebari, Syria is to dominate the agenda. The idea is to develop a broad Arab consensus for a transfer of power to an interim leadership. Iraq would also consider creating a “zone of reception and support” for Syrian refugees.
Although it marks de facto recognition of Iraq as a regional player, the summit is unlikely to end inter-Arab hostility.
Nor is it certain it will help Iraq solve its domestic problems. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could be brought down with the loss of a few seats in the National Assembly. Angered by Maliki’s “authoritarianism,” some Sunni leaders are playing the autonomy card to weaken the central government. The Kurds, secure in their three autonomous provinces, are trying to butter their bread on both sides.
Indeed, some Arab commentators claim that Iraq’s stability is nothing but a mirage. I think they are wrong.
New Iraq is no bed of roses. But Iraqis seem to have forged a consensus that eludes most other Arabs. Regardless of sectarian and partisan divisions, a majority of Iraqis seem to agree that government should be based on the will of the people as expressed through free elections.
Today, Iraq is the Arab country that comes closest to being a democracy, albeit an imperfect and messy one. That in itself is an achievement enough.Follow @NYPostOpinion