Baghdad Summit Draws Underwhelming Attendance, Highlights The Sunni And Shiite Divide

An Arab League meeting in Baghdad on the Syria issue drew underwhelming attendance yesterday in an apparent snub to the Iraqi government that reflected how trenchant the sectarian division between Sunnis and Shiites has become.

Low-profile turnout hits Baghdad summit

Only few leaders of the 22-member Arab League attend its summit in Baghdad.

An Arab League meeting in Baghdad on the Syria issue drew underwhelming attendance yesterday in an apparent snub to the Iraqi government that reflected how trenchant the sectarian division between Sunnis and Shiites has become.

As the summit opened in a former palace of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the powerful Sunni monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other Gulf nations, Jordan and Morocco were absent.

The only ruler from the Gulf to attend was the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, whose attendance was significant because Saddam invaded and occupied Kuwait for nearly seven months in 1990 before a U.S.-led coalition drove his army out. Relations between the two neighbors have been fraught with tension, even after Saddam’s 2003 ousting.

Many Gulf leaders chose to stay away due to their deep distrust of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, which they believe is a proxy for Iran. In unusually direct remarks, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr al-Thani, also the country’s foreign minister, told Al-Jazeera late March 28 that his own nation’s low level of representation was a “message” to Iraq’s majority Shiites to stop what he called the marginalization of minority Sunnis. Iraq’s once-powerful Sunnis complain that the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is concentrating power in the hands of the Shiites, and there is a growing desire among Sunni-majority provinces to win autonomy as a way to escape Shiite domination.

Egypt and Yemen sent lower-level figures, a reflection of the domestic turmoil still embroiling those nations, although the leaders of Sudan, Somalia, Comoros, Djibouti, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Kuwait and Libya all attended the meeting.

Syria’s crisis topped the agenda at the summit, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meeting the leaders to discuss a U.N.-backed peace plan to end the turmoil in Iraq’s western neighbor.

Ban said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must live up to his agreement to accept the U.N. proposal, saying, “The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action.”

Arab League members have endorsed U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan that calls for a cease-fire and peace talks in Syria, but they remain sharply split over how to deal with the violence that risks deepening sectarian divisions.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led the push to isolate Syria, but non-Gulf Arab states such as Algeria and Iraq have urged more caution, fearing that toppling al-Assad could spark sectarian violence. Iraq, which also has close ties to Iran, has resisted any strong measures by the Arab League on Syria, with its Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari saying he was opposed to foreign intervention there.