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Arab League Summit Provides Test for Beleaguered Baghdad

An Iraqi policeman stands guard at the site of a bomb attack in Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, March 20, 2012.
An Iraqi policeman stands guard at the site of a bomb attack in Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, March 20, 2012.

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Wracked by militant attacks, political divisions, sectarian tensions, and economic troubles, Iraq is expected to host Arab leaders next week in a summit it hopes will be a positive play on the diplomatic stage.

Those efforts were complicated on Tuesday when at least 12 near-simultaneous explosions struck across Iraq, killing and wounding dozens.

The bombings came despite a massive security push ahead of the Arab League summit set for March 29 in Baghdad.

The Iraqi government says it is determined to show it can keep the nation secure after U.S. troops left in December. Islamic insurgents from the group Ansar al-Islam have warned they intend to disrupt the meetings and show the country is not safe from violence.

The summit is the first of the 22-member Arab League since the winds of Arab Spring revolutions unfolded last year. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to attend.

Tens of thousands of security forces will be deployed. Baghdad hotels are being refurbished and streets spruced up. Save for arriving delegations, the Baghdad airport will be closed to traffic.

After nearly a decade of war and billions of dollars in foreign aid, Iraq is struggling in its bid for nationhood. But if the meeting of Arab leaders takes place, analysts say Baghdad could take a big step forward.   

"It is an important milestone for Iraqis in their return to normalcy," said Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Iraq has not hosted Arab leaders since May 1990, shortly before former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and caused upset in the Arab world that led to the Gulf War.

Baghdad was to hold the Arab League conference last year. But it was postponed due to security concerns and political and social upheaval in the Mideast.

Concerns Persist

As demonstrated by Tuesday's carnage, those concerns - and others - persist.

"There are huge political problems inside Iraq," Hani Ashour, an adviser to the Iraqiyya political bloc, told The National, a newspaper in Abu Dhabi. "The various political groups here can't agree on much, which makes it difficult to host such a meeting. On top of that there is a storm of political problems in the Arab world."

Iraq has invited 21 leaders to attend the summit. Some key former Arab League participants no longer have their place.

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who spearheaded the Arab League cause for 30 years, is jailed after having resigned last year in a popular uprising. Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is in exile after 23 years in power.

In Yemen, the decades-long rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh ended with vice-president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi taking over in February. And in Libya, strongman Moammar Gadhafi met his death in civil war.     

While those nations and Iraq forge new paths, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have experienced protests that are leading to modest reforms.

Syria on the Agenda

Syria, meanwhile, is torn by a popular uprising and is expected to dominate the Arab League talks.

The Arab League suspended Syria's membership in November after President Bashar al-Assad failed to fulfill a pledge to bring an end to his government's violent crackdown on dissent.

The League has failed in efforts to broker an end to the year-long violence in Syria that has left more than 8,000 people dead.

Iraq has been one of the least vocal of League members about its neighbor Syria.

"These are problematic subjects for Iraq," analyst Serwer said.  Iraq has been "less than completely committed to taking down Bashar al-Assad."

And Iraq too is struggling to find its diplomatic tone on another neighbor, Iran, which in a dispute with the West over its controversial nuclear program.

Iraq historically has had a "highly problematic relationship" with Iran, Serwer said.

Relations between the two countries have improved since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. However, tensions remain concerning the status of ethnic minority Kurds, who have regional autonomy in Iraq.

Kurdish militants seeking increased political and civil rights in Iran and Turkey have waged deadly attacks.

Better Ties to Kuwait

In the lead-up to the summit, Iraq paved the way for smoother relations with a southern neighbor, Kuwait.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Kuwait earlier this month in a bid to boost ties that have remained strained since Iraq's 1990 invasion.

During talks, Iraq and Kuwait agreed on a $500 million deal that settles a decades-old legal dispute involving Iraq's state-owned airline. The dispute stemmed from Kuwait's accusations that Saddam Hussein stole 10 airplanes and millions of dollars in equipment from Kuwait during the invasion.

Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is expected at the Baghdad summit.

The summit too will mark a religious milestone.  Iraq is now Shi'ite-led.  With the exception of Maliki, leaders attending the summit are Sunni Muslims.

Iraq has long struggled under the sectarian divide.  Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, says Tuesday's bombing attacks are probably a barometer of a growing divide between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite factions.

Abou Diab says the attacks also might have been timed to discredit the government before next week's Arab League summit in Baghdad.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of followers of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets in Basra, not only to mark the anniversary of the 2003 U.S. intervention, but also as a show of power ahead of the summit.

Sadr, a member of Maliki's ruling coalition, vows to ban protests during the summit as a show of "hospitality."

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