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Syria tops Arab agenda at Iraq summit
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) March 26, 2012

After decades at the heart of the Arab world, Syria now sits in the dock as regional leaders meet in Baghdad this week over how to end President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on a popular uprising.

But wide disparities among Arab chiefs' positions may hamper any hope of an aggressive resolution from the meeting, the first in Iraq in more than 20 years and taking place under heavy security after deadly bombings just a week ago.

Crucially, the Arab League will have to reconcile a proposal by Gulf countries to arm opponents of Assad with calls from states such as Iraq for a political resolution to the year-long crackdown monitors say has left more than 9,100 dead.

"There is a mounting crisis in Syria, there is daily killing, there is daily bloodshed, there is a stalemate... in the political solution, what should be done," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters in Baghdad.

Zebari said there "will be a resolution definitely on Syria," but admitted that he did not "think there will be a call on Bashar to step aside."

Iraqi authorities have insisted that the summit will focus on structural reform of the Arab League in an effort to make the organisation more active, but Syria remains in the limelight, rocked by ongoing protests and deadly clashes, US and European sanctions and a UN human rights probe.

Syrian forces bombarded a rebel neighbourhood of Homs for a seventh straight day on Monday, monitors said, after Russia, whose President Dmitry Medvedev discussed the crisis with his US counterpart Barack Obama, warned Damascus it must act to avoid civil war.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, who met Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Monday, has told pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, however, that it was unlikely the meeting in Iraq would call for Assad to step down.

While events in Syria will be discussed, the crushing of protests in Bahrain is not on the agenda, Zebari confirmed, although he admitted the suppression last year of Shiite-led pro-democracy rallies in Bahrain was a concern.

The summit also marks a re-emergence of Iraq, hosting its first Arab League meeting since Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which triggered UN sanctions and was eventually followed by the 2003 US-led invasion.

"It is a big event, it is the most important event for Iraq, to host the Arab summit," Zebari said, calling it a "turning point for Iraq."

"It is a recognition of the new Iraq that has emerged since 2003."

More than 100,000 members of the security forces are providing security in the capital, according to the Baghdad Operations Command, and Iraq has spent upwards of $500 million to refurbish major hotels and summit venues.

Security forces in Diyala, a restive ethnically mixed province in central Iraq that borders Baghdad, imposed a vehicle ban across the province until further notice, with a roadside bomb killing two soldiers south of Diyala capital Baquba.

Despite the dramatically tighter security measures, Al-Qaeda's front group in Iraq managed to carry out a wave of nationwide attacks on March 20 that cost the lives of 50 people, including three killed in a car bomb that exploded opposite the foreign ministry.

Iraq expects at least 10 Arab leaders to attend the summit, but while some countries such as Lebanon have announced top-level representation, the majority of the bloc's 22 members have been tight-lipped over who will attend.

Saudi Arabia, which recently named its first envoy to Iraq since 1990, announced on Monday night that its delegation for the summit would be headed by its ambassador to the Arab League, Ahmed Qatan.

The summit was originally due to be held in Baghdad a year ago but was delayed by regional turmoil resulting from the Arab Spring uprisings, as well as concerns over violence in Iraq.

As a result of the revolts, many familiar faces will not attend: since the beginning of last year, Libya's Moamer Kadhafi has been killed, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak forced to step down, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh has handed power to his deputy and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has fled to Saudi Arabia.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and genocide, will head his country's delegation, but Zebari said he will not be arrested.

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After Russia, Annan seeks China nod for Syria plan
Beijing (AFP) March 26, 2012 - International envoy Kofi Annan has just won backing from Russia for his Syrian mediation efforts but still faces tough questions from China, which opposes interference in the restive nation.

Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, is due in Beijing on Tuesday to brief leaders about his proposal to end violence in the country, after visiting Russia, where President Dmitry Medvedev offered him Moscow's backing.

China and Russia have previously drawn criticism for blocking UN Security Council resolutions condemning Syria's protracted and deadly crackdown on protests, and their support is crucial for Annan's plan to move forward.

On Monday, China said it supported Annan's efforts to help solve the crisis and urged a peaceful solution but it was unclear whether this meant full support for Annan's plan or broad backing for his attempts.

"China values and supports the mediation efforts of Mr. Annan and hopes this visit will allow in-depth discussions on a political resolution of the Syrian issue," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

Annan's proposal calls for a UN-supervised halt to fighting in Syria, with President Bashar al-Assad's government pulling its troops out of protest cities, and aims to push for a Syrian-led transition to a democratic system.

"Annan will probably gain a better understanding of how supportive the Chinese are (for his plan)," said Joshua Eisenman, senior fellow in China studies at the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council.

"He'll get a sense of what the Chinese will bear and won't bear," he told AFP.

Analysts say that with Russia now firmly on board -- and Medvedev warning that Annan's plan represents the "last chance" for avoiding a civil war in Syria -- China faces more impetus to contribute to a solution.

"Since the Russians said yes first, it makes his (Annan's) job easier," said Eisenman.

But he said Beijing would still need persuading that there will be no foreign military intervention or attempt at regime change -- after Western efforts helped to depose Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

"China of course hopes the (Syrian) government and opposition parties can reach consensus through negotiations," Jia Qingguo, professor of international relations at Peking University, said.

Summarising China's position, he said: "No country, including the United Nations, has a right to change the government of another country. This could have grave consequences."

As such, analysts say Beijing will be looking carefully at Annan's plans for a Syrian-led democratic transition.

"The issue is sovereignty. China doesn't support interference in the internal affairs of others," Eisenman said.

"China also has an authoritarian government. It fears Western pressure on its own political system and criticism of how it responds to dissent."

Beijing has uneasily watched developments in the Arab world -- where pro-democracy protests have in some countries toppled governments -- and has responded by cracking down on any hint of demonstrations at home.

But analysts say China has a strong interest in maintaining stability in the Middle East as the price of oil has already reached near record levels, posing a threat to its fast-expanding economic machine.

It has repeatedly called for an end to violence in Syria, and earlier this month it backed a UN statement urging Assad to work toward ceasing hostilities.

It has also unveiled its own six-point plan, calling for an immediate end to the conflict -- which monitors say has left more than 9,000 dead since March 2011 -- and for dialogue between Assad's regime and the opposition.


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Arab League goes from bluster to clout in Arab Spring
Cairo (AFP) March 26, 2012
Back in 2008, flamboyant Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi warned rulers at an Arab League summit in Damascus that they, too, could face the fate of executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The assembled dictators, who between them ruled more than 300 million Arabs, burst out laughing. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was there, as was Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Tunisian dictator Zein El Abidine Ben Ali. ... read more

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