Middle East

Divisions laid bare as Arab League tackles Syria

Nouri al-Maliki at the summit sitting with other delegates behind him
Image caption At the summit Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki warned against sparking a proxy war.

It has cost a fortune in cash and military man-hours to stage this summit - the first in Iraq for more than 20 years.

Thousands of police and heavily armed SWAT teams have been stationed at every major intersection and strategic points in Baghdad.

There was also a daylong curfew, much to the frustration of local traders if not the little boys playing football on the capital's empty streets.

As a journalist, covering this summit has been a logistical and organisational nightmare.

There have been endless queues at checkpoints, little access to ministers and a bureaucratic minefield to get official accreditation.

It is saying something that the last Arab League Summit I covered in Col Muammar Gaddafi's Libya was only marginally less of a "car-crash".

Iraq's relations with some of its Arab neighbours are still tense.

Image caption UN head Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to start implementing Kofi Annan's plan

That is perhaps one reason why more than half of the League's 22 heads of state did not come to Baghdad, particularly those from Gulf Sunni states which are suspicious of ties between the Maliki government and Shia Iran.

Others may have been deterred by the country's precarious security situation.

Two mortars landing not far from the conference centre, just as the summit began, will not have calmed any nerves.

Arab world divided

The main topic on the agenda here was the crisis in Syria.

In the presence of the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, delegates formally supported a UN plan to end the fighting.

But there are deep divisions in the Arab world over how to deal with Syria.

Some Gulf states have advocated tough action against the government in Damascus, whereas Syria's neighbours, Lebanon and Iraq, are anxious at what might happen if the regime of Bashar al-Assad falls.

So they used the Baghdad summit to urge caution and said there should be no outside intervention in Syria.

But even as the delegates spoke, unverifiable pictures emerged on YouTube of mortar shells smashing into Homs - a town being blasted into submission.

President Assad is said to have accepted the international plan.

But as more testimony emerged from Aleppo, where protesters came under fire, the regime's opponents said that Mr Assad was not interested in dialogue - until they had been routed.

If anything, the situation in Syria is getting worse - the UN estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed but the army continues its offensive.

As the delegates departed another lavish if inconclusive Arab League Summit, they acknowledged the situation in Syria could take a long time to resolve.

If the so-called Annan plan was not observed by the Assad government, said officials here in Baghdad, it would be a matter for the UN Security Council, not the Arab League.

Tonight as some degree of normality returned to Baghdad - even though there is still a considerable military presence - the Iraqi government declared the summit a resounding success.

Notwithstanding the absence of so many key regional players and the failure to fully address the main crisis affecting the region.

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