Baghdad seeks to restore regional role at Arab summit

March 26, 2012

As the first guests began to arrive Monday, Iraq was congratulating itself for accomplishing a feat few had believed possible: It is hosting an Arab League summit, an event many Iraqis hope will herald their country’s reemergence as a regional power after decades of isolation, war and occupation.

Over the coming three days, dignitaries from 20 nations across the region will pour into a spruced up and locked down Baghdad to discuss the many weighty issues confronting the Arab world, including the crisis in Syria, the democratic transitions in Egypt and Libya and the faltering Palestinian quest for statehood.

For Iraq the mere fact that the summit is being held in a city renowned for its regular suicide bombings and woeful infrastructure is already considered a triumph.

“We pulled it together,” Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said in an interview Monday. “Nobody believed us. The very idea it is taking place is a success.”

Most significantly, he said, Iraq sees the opportunity to reclaim what it regards as its rightful role as a regional Arab power now that Saddam Hussein has gone, the nearly nine-year presence of U.S. troops has ended and the country is standing on its feet again.

For Iraq, it is a profound moment, one that both tests and affirms its identity as a Shiite-majority nation that also happens to be Arab. Despite predictions that Iraq’s Shiite-led government would embrace Iran as soon as U.S. troops withdrew, Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has instead been tilting toward his Arab neighbors. He has raced to mend fences with a roster of Sunni Arab states, including Egypt, Kuwait, Libya and, most significantly, Saudi Arabia, that had long expressed animosity toward the Shiite government in Baghdad.

Iraqi officials dismiss suggestions that the charm offensive was launched merely to secure attendance and won’t outlast the summit.

“Iraq today embraces its Arab brothers,” said Ali al-Musawi, a spokesman for Maliki. “We know very well that holding the summit in Baghdad will restore our economic and political significance as a major player and a pivotal state in the region.”

It’s a turning point, too, for an Arab world unsettled by the turmoil unleashed during the revolts of 2011. The summit will be hosted by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was publicly snubbed by the late Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi at the last Arab summit in 2010 because he is a member of Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Maliki is also expected to play a leading role.

The invitees are almost all Sunni, and though many nations are not sending their heads of state, the fact that all have said they will come is considered a signal of Iraq’s reacceptance into the Arab fold after more than two decades of isolation. Only Syria, which was suspended from the Arab League in November because of its government’s brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protesters, will not be there.

Arab states “are seeing Iraq rising again. It is showing independence,” Zebari said. “And it is not an Iranian-controlled and -occupied country as they thought.”

It is Iraq’s turn to host the summit, which was postponed last year because of the revolts elsewhere. The choice of venue nonetheless raised eyebrows. The daily tally of bombings and shootings made many skeptical that Baghdad was a sufficiently safe venue in which to host Arab heads of state. The country’s badly frayed infrastructure raised doubts that it would be able to provide them with suitably lavish accommodations. And until a few months ago, Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbors were so dire that it was assumed many wouldn’t show up at all.

But Maliki’s government has spared no effort to ensure that the summit goes ahead. To deter suicide bombers, huge swaths of Baghdad have been sealed off to traffic. The airport has closed, and the government has declared a week-long public holiday.

More than $500 million has been spent to clean up the city, renovate hotel rooms and lavishly restore the cavernous Republican Palace, built by Saddam Hussein and occupied by the U.S. Embassy for several years, where the actual summit will take place.

It would be hard to disguise the dreary decrepitude of all of Baghdad’s crumbling, war-battered streets on such a budget, but roads along the routes that guests will traverse have been planted with blazing marigolds and decorated with the brightly colored flags of the nations attending.

Not all Iraqis are happy with the upheaval their city is enduring. With most major roads closed off, journeys across the city take hours. The week-long shutdown has impinged upon livelihoods and sent prices for local produce soaring.

Many question the high price tag of the largely cosmetic alterations and complain that the money would have been better spent on restoring electricity, which still functions only a few hours a day.

Yet there’s also a sense of pride. “The summit in Baghdad is something good,” said Yaroob Tawfiq Khadem, a 48-year-old teacher. “Through it, our country will be restored to its normal Arab environment, and this should make everyone happy.”

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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