Arab foreign ministers have convened in Baghdad for the first Arab League summit in Iraq in two decades amid plans to ask their heads of state to urge a halt to the crackdown in Syria.
Libya’s foreign minister formally opened the summit on Wednesday before handing the league presidency to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Arab heads of state will gather in Baghdad on Thursday, when they plan to hear from Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria.
The summit marked the first time Iraq has hosted an Arab League summit since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
|Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr reports on Sunni concerns|
For the first time since that conflict, Iraq also officially received an ambassador from Saudi Arabia, Fahd bin Abdul Mohsen al-Zaid, though he will function only as a “non-resident” ambassador and is already the Saudi envoy to Jordan.
The summit was not particularly well attended. At least five countries sent foreign ministers, including Bahrain, but both Qatar and Egypt did not send their top diplomats, and others were absent.
The meeting is likely to be dominated by the issue of Syria, where a year-old crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad has left more than 9,000 people dead.
Zebari said Iraq rejected foreign intervention to end the conflict but supported the aspiration of the Syrian people for freedom.
Iraq’s position grinds against that taken by some Gulf states, which have advocated arming the Syrian rebels and sending Arab forces to intervene.
Arab leaders are expected to endorse a six-point proposal by Annan that is aimed at bringing an end to the fighting. Annan visited Damascus recently, and Assad has reportedly accepted his peace plan.
“There are divisions here but clearly it seems that the way forward will be to reach a negotiated resolution to the crisis,” said Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Baghdad. “They will not call on President Assad to step aside and they will not be issuing any ultimatums.”
Iraq still in debt
Iraq hopes its hosting of the summit shows it has emerged from years of turmoil and bloody chaos following the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation, but a massive security operation in Baghdad reflected fears that armed groups could try to disrupt the meeting.
The meeting’s agenda also reflected Iraq’s shaky economy.
Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi told journalists after a Tuesday meeting of economy, finance and trade ministers that Iraq had asked Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Qatar, Morocco and Libya cancel its bilateral debts.
Iraq ran up massive debts, some of which have been forgiven, during its 1980-88 war with Iran.
The Tuesday meeting also discussed ramping up regional tourism, tackling water security and putting in place a regional alert system for natural disasters.
More than 100,000 members of Iraq’s forces are providing security in Baghdad, and Iraq has spent upwards of $500 million to refurbish major hotels, summit venues and infrastructure.