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Iraq Hosts Arab Summit Amid Regional, Internal Tensions

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, left, welcomes Algeria's Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, right, in Baghdad, Iraq, March 27, 2012.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, left, welcomes Algeria's Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, right, in Baghdad, Iraq, March 27, 2012.

As Iraq prepares to host a summit this week of Arab leaders in Baghdad, tensions over the conflict in Syria and Iraq's internal problems threaten to deepen divisions rather than promote accord.

Iraq is hosting the Arab League summit for the first time since 1990, just months before Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. It is also the first league summit since the Arab Spring movement swept the region last year and comes amid continuing tensions over Syria. The main gathering of the Arab leaders is planned for Thursday.

While few analysts expect Arab officials to throw plates at each other as they did at a dinner during the last summit in Iraq, many say tensions are simmering.

Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution says that Saudi Arabia delivered a blow to this year's summit by announcing it would send its Arab League ambassador, not a Kingdom leader, to represent it. "That act," he said, "tells one and all that this is not a summit."

In an effort to create regional goodwill, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken steps to resolve long-standing financial conflicts with Kuwait and Egypt. 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.

But Iraq is struggling under a sectarian divide that plays out in internal politics where Sunnis complain of exclusion from Maliki's government.

Analyst Ajami says that while Maliki is "eager for a stamp of legitimacy from the Sunni Arab states," it will more likely reap scorn for having "marginalized [Iraq's] own Sunni community."

Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, says Maliki's growing alliance with Iran, and his unwillingness to compromise with Iraq's Sunni minority, are pushing Iraq out of the mainstream path of Arab states.

Abou Diab says Maliki did not make a conciliatory gesture to resolve internal political conflicts and that gives an impression of defiance against Arab countries in the Gulf.

Syria's continuing crackdown on the opposition is expected to dominate the summit.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari played down Sunni Arab accusations that Baghdad is siding with the Syrian government. Zebari told reporters on Monday that Iraq has had "numerous contacts with the opposition."

Riad Kahwaji of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis says the increasingly bloody crackdown in Syria is fueling what he calls a "cold war" between Iran and its allies, which support the Syrian government, and Saudi Arabia and its allies, which support the uprising.

"The summit takes place at a time where we have some sort of a cold war going on in the region. On the one side we have Iran and countries where governments are predominantly Shi'ite or have non-state actors which are Shi'ite, like Hezbollah, and on the other side we have Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and some other Arab countries who are pro-Western and are also predominantly Sunni," Kahwaji noted.

In the lead up to the summit, the Iraqi government has stepped up security in Baghdad, closing major bridges and thoroughfares, and giving its residents a week-long holiday.

Islamic militants claimed responsibility for a series of bombings last week designed to show the instability of the government. Iraq has deployed tens of thousands of security forces to deter violence during the summit.