BAGHDAD — With its own initiatives having failed, the Arab League is expected Thursday to back a U.N.-led peace plan during a meeting in Iraq, where the crisis in Syria is expected to be the dominant topic.
Officials said Wednesday that whatever the Arab League leaders did, they wouldn't call for Syrian President Bashar Assad's ouster or issue any other ultimatums for resolving the year-old conflict that's killed thousands of Syrians, the vast majority of them civilians.
Officials denied that they were softening their stance on Syria, but it's apparent that the Arab League is backing off its tough talk from January, when the group called on Assad to hand over authority to a deputy, thereby launching a phased transition. At the time, the league had hoped for a unity government to form within two months, to be followed by elections supervised by Arab and international monitors.
Some Arab officials have acknowledged privately that the earlier stance was adopted too hastily, when it appeared that the regime was poised for collapse. Assad's forces have since routed rebels in flash-point cities, while internal divisions threaten to unravel an opposition coalition that many had hoped would become an interim authority.
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With the Assad regime still firmly in place two months later, delegates reiterated condemnations of the violence Wednesday but stopped short of repeating calls for Assad to step down.
"The Syrian case now is an international matter," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the main organizer of the summit, told a news conference in Baghdad. "We tried to find an Arab solution, but we didn't succeed. The situation is very critical."
Assad has agreed to a six-point proposal put forth by U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, according to the Syrian state news agency SANA, which noted in an online report that Russia and China supported Assad's backing of "a responsible stance seeking acceptable solutions for all."
Zebari also called Assad's reported agreement to the plan a "positive and constructive move."
Russia and China, which along with Iran are the last remaining allies of Assad's pariah nation, twice vetoed draft U.N. resolutions condemning him.
"The position is still that Kofi Annan should be given more time in order to reach a cease-fire," Shafeeq al Ghabra, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, told the satellite channel Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
Anti-government Syrian activists have rejected any plan that keeps Assad in power, and it seems he won't go without a fight. A separate SANA report Wednesday quoted a Syrian Foreign Ministry official as saying the government "would not deal with any initiative by the Arab League, at any level, in its absence."
The Arab League has suspended Syria over its bloody crackdown on protesters; it's the only one of the 22 member countries that isn't represented at the Baghdad conference.
Annan's plan calls for an immediate cease-fire by government and opposition forces, a withdrawal of government troops and heavy weapons from residential areas, humanitarian aid, the release of detainees and greater access for journalists after the regime's sustained attempts at a news blackout on the crisis.
Zebari reaffirmed that Arab nations oppose foreign intervention in Syria and still prefer to resolve the crisis within "the Arab house." That house is divided, though, with Sunni Muslim powers such as Persian Gulf countries pushing for arms shipments to the insurgents who are struggling to bring down Assad's regime.
Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led government, which enjoys close ties to Assad's Iranian allies, falls in a rival Arab League camp that advocates caution because of the conflict's high potential for triggering a sectarian war that undoubtedly would inflame tensions in Syria's restive neighbors.
"The most important thing is stopping the violence, from all sides," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said on the sidelines of a foreign ministers' meeting in anticipation of Thursday's summit. "And forming a transitional government from all the parties, and handing power to people whom both the opposition and authorities in Syria believe can run a dialogue."
(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article from Baghdad.)
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