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Baghdad hopes Arab League summit stakes its place in changing Middle East

BAGHDAD — It's a sweet irony for Iraq that the main organizer of this weekend's Arab League summit, an annual gathering of Middle Eastern potentates and diplomats, isn't even Arab.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, an ethnic Kurd and the chief architect of the Baghdad summit, beamed Monday as he counted down the hours to what he bills as a historic moment: Iraq reclaiming its place in the Arab world after years of isolation during the U.S.-led military occupation and its spinoff sectarian war.

For the past several summits, Zebari weathered the snubs and slights of Arab rulers, who openly questioned the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Iraqi government because it's dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite Muslims and Kurds, and was formed in the shadow of Western occupiers.

Now, however, the U.S. military is gone, and many of those skeptical Arab leaders have either been overthrown or forced into humbling reforms after the Arab Spring uprisings of last year. With the Arab League so heavily invested in the outcomes of revolts in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia and — most urgently — Syria, member countries are expected to use the conference to discuss their limited options for containing the regional crises now spilling across borders.

Zebari is gambling that the chance for high-level dialogue on Syria and other timely issues trumps the old Sunni Arab chauvinism toward the new Iraq. He said that 21 of the 22 member nations would be represented, including at least eight heads of state, whose presence is a benchmark for the summit's success. The only empty seat belongs to Syria, which the Arab League has suspended and therefore wasn't invited.

Pulling off the summit with a decent turnout and no violence would represent a breakthrough for a country that, for years after Saddam Hussein's fall, still had no real clout in the Arab League and was practically begging its reluctant neighbors to send envoys to wartime Baghdad. At the 2006 summit in Sudan, Arab delegates were so alarmed at "losing" Iraq to a U.S.-Iranian proxy battle that they drafted a resolution demanding the protection of Arab interests.

"This, in diplomatic terms, is a major, major step," Zebari said of Arab nations' willingness now to build ties with the post-Saddam leadership. "From not recognizing Iraq to recognizing Iraq."

Zebari spoke to three Western reporters in the Foreign Ministry's bustling control room for the summit. A large countdown clock affixed to the wall marked the time _19 hours, 42 minutes and 52 seconds — before the meeting would officially convene. Young aides worked feverishly at two long columns of computer terminals.

Zebari said he'd courted attendees with "a charm offensive," striking deals with various neighbors to resolve old debts, exchange or pardon prisoners and ink trade agreements. He had a budget of $500 million to make the war-ravaged capital inviting and safe. Decrepit hotels were renovated, bullet-pocked facades were repainted and colorful flowers were planted along main thoroughfares where palm groves had been razed to make way for American tanks.

The Defense and Interior ministries' parallel effort to secure Baghdad ahead of the conference has turned the capital into a gridlocked maze of checkpoints, some with cars 100 deep Monday. Authorities were determined not to let the sporadic, deadly bombings that have continued since the Americans' departure mar Iraq's big moment.

"The summit is on. See?" Zebari said, pointing at the countdown clock's vanishing seconds.

Baghdad originally planned to hold the summit a year ago, but it was postponed because of the Arab Spring rebellions. Even on the eve of this year's conference, the regional tumult threatened to derail Zebari's two years of meticulous planning.

Egypt's top general and de facto president bowed out — "at the last minute," Zebari said with a sigh — to deal with a domestic constitutional crisis. Mauritania's president likewise bailed, to attend to the repercussions of a surprise coup in neighboring Mali.

And there's no telling how the conflict in Syria, a polarizing topic that's already inflamed sectarian tensions among member countries, will play out at the summit. Officials already have said there wouldn't be a declaration calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, signaling a scaling-back of the Arab League's stance now that his regime's demise no longer seems imminent.

For Zebari, getting Arab leaders to Baghdad — not to mention getting them home safely — seemed of paramount concern. He decried the sarcastic Iraqi journalists who've dubbed his pet project the "three-hour summit," alluding to the possibility that the leaders would make only cameo appearances before hightailing it home.

"Iraq is not under Iranian occupation and control as they used to believe," Zebari said of the Arab League nations. "They were wrong that after the Americans left, there would be a total collapse."

Two years ago, Zebari said, he'd attended an Arab League planning meeting in then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte. When Amr Moussa, a current Egyptian presidential contender who was then the head of the league, presented plans for Iraq to hold the next summit, Gadhafi was furious, Zebari recalled.

"Gadhafi said, 'What is this? How can we have a summit in a country occupied by the Americans?' " Zebari said.

"Come on, Brother Leader," Zebari appealed, reminding Gadhafi of his support for Iraqi rebels who'd tried to unseat Saddam and of his more recent visits to Persian Gulf countries that also have foreign military presences.

Zebari said the emir of Qatar, home to a U.S. Central Command base, bristled and said the American presence was a matter of national sovereignty, not up for discussion. The Kuwaiti emir defused the conversation with dark humor.

"He said, 'I don't only have Americans, but the British, too!' " Zebari recounted with a laugh. "It seemed we were all under occupation."


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