A much-anticipated Arab League-sponsored conference to promote national reconciliation in Iraq opened in Baghdad Monday. The conference is chiefly aimed at easing the growing sectarian rift between Iraq's Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. But the conference suffered a setback when Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa did not attend the first day's session.
Secretary General Moussa had been widely expected to open the two-day conference to spearhead the Arab League's first major initiative in Iraq since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein two-and-a-half years ago.
It is not known why the secretary general was absent from the session. But it is widely believed that security concerns may have prevented him from attending. Earlier this month, an Arab League delegation preparing for Mr. Moussa's visit came under attack in Baghdad. Two policemen escorting the delegation were killed.
Lebanon's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Hujazee, spoke on behalf of the secretary general at the conference, which was attended by several hundred people, including Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite politicians, religious leaders, and representatives of non-governmental organizations.
Mr. Hujazee says the issues of maintaining Iraq's unity, its territorial integrity, the success of the political process, and the reconstruction of Iraqi institutions to hasten the departure of foreign troops from Iraq are what the Arab League hopes to discuss with various Iraqi groups in the coming days.
Iraqis have criticized the pan-Arab body for not taking a more active role in the country's affairs. But events in Iraq in recent months, including bitter political disputes over the draft constitution and the deepening influence of Shi'ite Iran in southern Iraq, have heightened Arab fears that a civil war could ignite between Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites and cause major regional instability.
Last month, Saudi Arabia warned Washington that Iraq's Shi'ite parties have so much political power and such close ties to Tehran that the country is on the verge of being handed to Iran and facing disintegration.
Iraq's Kurdish foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said that the Arab League was partly to blame for Iran's growing influence in Iraq. Mr. Zebari says Arabs have been indifferent to Iraq's problems, helping Iran fill the vacuum.
Analysts in Iraq say it is unclear how much progress the Arab League can make in trying to reach its objectives.
The Arab League delegation has received a chilly reception from Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders, who view the body as being a backer of Sunni Arabs. League member Syria has been accused of being a major supporter of the country's Sunni-led insurgency.