Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah attends the opening session of the first Arab summit to be held in Iraq in 22 years on March 29 in the former Republican Palace in Baghdad. The year-long crisis in Syria is in the spotlight. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Arab leaders assembled in Baghdad on Thursday for a landmark summit marked by lavish hospitality, speeches hailing Iraq’s return to the Arab fold — and a rocket explosion at the Iranian Embassy on the edge of the fortified Green Zone, where the gathering was taking place.

It was a day full of symbolism for a newly assertive Iraq, anxious to shed its reputation as the region’s outcast, a country too dangerous, too dysfunctional and too tainted by its associations with both Iran and the United States to accomplish anything so ambitious as a summit attended by Arab heads of state.

Arab leaders, wearing traditional robes, swept along red carpets through the opulent, exquisitely renovated Republican Palace, which until a few years ago housed U.S. soldiers and diplomats. Bowing waiters offered trays of tea and juice to dignitaries as they stepped out of limousines. The menu served at the banquet featured dates coated in 24-carat gold as Iraq endeavored to show it was up to the extravagant standards typically set by the annual event.

“This is a nation that was distanced, overlooked, boycotted, sanctioned,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said at a news conference after the event. “And now it is back.”

Little of substance emerged from the gathering to justify the $500 million price tag, a source of resentment among many ordinary Iraqis struggling to make ends meet in the country’s laggard economy. Iraq saw the event above all as a chance to showcase its Arab identity after decades of regional isolation following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the later ascent of a Shiite-dominated government shunned until now by most of the region’s majority-Sunni Arab states.

Declaration on Syria

The summit’s final declaration made it clear, however, that the Arab League is now dialing down its tough talk on Syria, given disagreements on how next to proceed and the failure of past Arab efforts to promote a solution. It endorsed the peace mission of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and explicitly urged against foreign military intervention in Syria.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said it is now up to the U.N. Security Council to take decisions on Syria. It is also the Syrian people’s responsibility to decide their future, he said, seemingly backtracking from an earlier call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down — a call made before Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution endorsing the Arab League proposals.

“The Security Council is the sole party that has the authority to issue binding decisions,” he said. “Now the Syrian file has been sent to the Security Council.”

The question of whether arms should be sent to the Syrian opposition was not raised, and the representative of Saudi Arabia, which has been among the most hawkish of the Arab states on Syria, did not mention Syria in his brief speech. Qatar did not speak at all.

Few A-list dignitaries

The Saudi and Qatari delegates were both ambassadors, among several relatively low-ranking representatives at a summit intended for kings and presidents. Only nine of the 20 countries invited sent their heads of state, and many of those were from countries with little influence over the league. Oman sent the spokesman for its parliamentary speaker.

But Iraqi officials, nonetheless, said they were delighted that all the invited countries had at least shown up. “They were representing their leaders, and we’re okay with that,” Zebari said.

Syria, which is suspended from the Arab League, was not invited.

The emir of Kuwait was the surprise star, descending from his private jet at Baghdad airport to be greeted on the runway with a kiss on the cheek by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a gesture that seemed to herald an end to the animosity that has lingered since Iraq invaded Kuwait 22 years ago.

The gathering was also a political triumph for Maliki, who has been steadily consolidating his personal power at the expense of his Sunni coalition partners in government. He met each of the visiting dignitaries at the airport, portraying himself for the TV cameras as the architect of Iraq’s rapidly warming relationships with Arab states that have long supported his Sunni rivals.

“The source of Iraq’s strength and wealth is its Arab identity,” he told the summit, which was presided over by Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani.

The blast at the Iranian Embassy undermined the government’s boasts that it had managed to pull off the summit without incident, although it would have gone unheard in the conference room deep inside the vast palace. Zebari and Elaraby both seemed surprised when asked about it by a journalist.

A second mortar explosion was also reported in a distant Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, in a reminder of just how hard it still is to secure the city. There were no reports of casualties. During the summit, at least 100,000 police officers and soldiers were on duty, some drafted from other parts of the country, while a curfew kept Baghdad’s 7 million residents indoors and cellphone services were suspended.

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.