Baghdad summit: Arab leaders to stop short of call for Assad ouster
Arab leaders will stop short of calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit on Thursday in Baghdad, with the city locked down for its first major regional summit in a generation.
With 100,000 security forces standing guard in the Iraqi capital, officials took unprecedented measures to prevent attacks, by closing off a large swathe of the city's roads and mobile phone networks, and shutting down its airport and surrounding airspace to commercial traffic.
And with the country having suffered deadly violence just last week, just one attack has been reported since Tuesday's meeting of economy and finance ministers, a low figure by Baghdad's often brutal standards.
Six visiting Arab leaders as well as UN chief Ban Ki-moon had arrived in Baghdad by Thursday morning for the summit, which regional officials have pushed to focus on a wide variety of issues, ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to jumpstarting the area's economy.
The focus, however, has been on Syria, and officials say Arab leaders will stop short of calling for Assad's ouster.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari's confirmed Wednesday evening that the summit of the 22-member Arab League will steer clear of the strong moves advocated by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to resolve the Syria crisis.
The UN says more than 9,000 people have been killed in a bloody crackdown by Syrian forces on a year-long revolt.
“The Arab League initiative is clear and did not demand that Bashar step down,” Zebari said after a ministerial meeting. "We (foreign ministers) also did not ask for that and the upcoming decision will not go in this direction."
It "is up to the people of Syria to decide, to choose, to elect their leaders. It's not up to the League or to anybody else," he said.
Asked whether the arming of Syrian rebels was raised, Zebari said: "We did not discuss this subject at all."
The two issues have pitted countries which have called for Assad to leave and advocated sending arms to rebel groups against those pushing for political reconciliation, such as Iraq.
Iraqi leaders have said 10 visiting regional leaders will attend the summit, following two days of meetings of Arab economy and foreign ministers, including neighbouring emirate Kuwait.
Now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait came just months after Baghdad hosted its last Arab summit.
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani meanwhile said in an interview with Al-Jazeera, excerpts of which were posted on the network's website, that his country was sending a "message" to Iraq's leadership by reducing its representation at the Arab Summit to a minimum.
The premier said he would have wanted the level of representation to be higher "but we will sit with them in the future and talk," he added. He did not elaborate.
Qatar is represented at the summit by its ambassador to the Cairo-based Arab League, Saif bin Muqaddam.
Egypt's Arab League ambassador, Afifi Abdel Wahab, told journalists that the pan-Arab body's next summit will be held in the Qatari capital Doha. US diplomatic push US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Thursday for a two-country tour aimed at raising pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end a deadly year-long crackdown.
In the second such push in a month, Clinton travels first to Riyadh for talks Friday and Saturday with Saudi and other Gulf Arab leaders before engaging in broader meetings Sunday with Arab, Turkish and Western officials in Istanbul.
|Off to Riyadh and Istanbul|
Clinton will meet in Riyadh with Saudi King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal as well as ministers of Saudi Arabia's five Gulf Arab neighbors -- Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
The Friends of Syria meeting in Turkey follows the inaugural one Clinton attended in Tunis at the end of February -- a response to Western and Arab failure to win Russian and Chinese backing at the UN Security Council.
Aides said Clinton will discuss how to make Assad comply with a new plan to end the crackdown on a pro-democracy movement, study further sanctions against his regime and consider ways to aid the opposition who will be in Istanbul.
The chief US diplomat was highly skeptical Tuesday after Assad said he accepted a six-point plan that Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy, had submitted to him earlier this month.
"Given Assad's history of overpromising and underdelivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate actions," Clinton said. "We will judge Assad's sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says."
Annan's plan calls for a commitment to stop all armed violence, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, full media access, an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate, and release of prisoners.
On Wednesday US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland assailed Assad for failing to live up to his promises. "This is not a good sign that the arrests and the violence continue," she said.
"We're going to be continuing to look at what more we can do on the sanctions side to pressure the regime," Nuland said of the conference in Istanbul.
"And obviously, we'll all be comparing notes on how we can support Kofi Annan, particularly on the important point of getting Assad to meet the commitment that he's made," she said.
Nuland said the US delegation will also discuss ways to deliver humanitarian aid to the Syrian people -- during a crackdown UN officials now estimate has cost more than 9,000 lives in a year -- and how to promote opposition unity.