Most Arab League leaders missing from summit

The Arab League summit meeting opened in Baghdad today with only 10 of the 22 leaders in attendance, amid a growing rift over how far the group should go to end the conflict in Syria.

Meetings are group's 1st since Arab Spring swept the Middle East

More than half the leaders of the 22-member Arab League were absent from the opening of the group's annual summit meeting, which began in Baghdad on Thursday. (Karim Kadim/Associated Press)

The Arab League opened a summit meeting in Baghdad on Thursday with only 10 of the 22 leaders in attendance, amid a growing rift over how far the group should go to end the conflict in Syria.

The meeting carries historical weight because Iraq is stepping out of the shadows after a decade of bloodshed to host the event, which is the first summit since the Arab Spring began in earnest just over a year ago.

Those uprisings forced the cancellation of last year's summit. Since then, four perennial summit figures have been swept from the scene: Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

Snapshot of a shakeup

Arab leaders 2010 photo highlights shift in power. View the photo.

The new leaders of Tunisia and Libya were among the 10 heads of state who attended, but Egypt and Yemen sent lower-level figures, a reflection of the domestic turmoil still roiling those nations.

Normally held annually, the last Arab League summit was two years ago in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte, hosted by the deposed and now deceased Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Explosions heard in central Baghdad

A senior Iraqi intelligence official said a mortar hit near the Iranian Embassy, just outside the Green Zone, where the summit was being held in a palace once used by dictator Saddam Hussein.

He had no word on a second reported explosion and said there were no immediate reports of casualties.

A different strongman is now in the spotlight, as the situation in Syria tops the league's agenda.

Observers expect an endorsement for UN envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan for Syria, even though it stops short of earlier league demands that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. 

The one-day summit ended with a call on Syria's embattled regime to "immediately implement" Annan's proposals and to end the deadly year-long conflict.

The summit's final communiqué said that the Arab leaders fully support the "legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people to democracy and freedom and their right to determine their future."

Poor attendance underscores tensions

Iraq had hoped that hosting the summit would herald its return to the Arab fold after two decades of isolation. But the absence of more than half of the Arab leaders and the ability of militants to launch attacks despite a massive security operation suggest that Iraq may still have some way to go before it can fully return to normalcy and reintegrate into the Arab world.

First non-Arab chair

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani became the first non-Arab to chair an Arab League summit.

Talabani, a Kurd who speaks fluent Arabic and is well versed in Arabic culture, has been a father figure to Iraqis since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, often acting as a unifier between his country's rival ethnic and religious factions.

Another Iraqi Kurd, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, chaired Wednesday's foreign ministers' meeting.

The summit opened without the leaders of Jordan, Morrocco and the powerful Sunni monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or the other U.S.-allied Gulf Arab nations. The only ruler from the Gulf in attendance is the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, whose country was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990 and occupied for nearly seven months before a U.S.-led coalition drove his army out.

Relations between the two neighbours have been fraught ever since, even after Saddam's 2003 ouster. Kuwait's attendance should cap recent improvement in relations.

But the absence of the five other Gulf Arab leaders reflects increased Sunni-Shia tensions across the region in the aftermath of last year's Arab Spring uprisings, particularly the one against a regime dominated by a Shia offshoot sect in Sunni-majority Syria and another by majority Shias in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, also a Gulf Arab nation.

Gulf nations push for action on Syria

Iraq is hosting the annual Arab summit for the first time since 1990, keen to show it has emerged from years of turmoil and U.S. occupation. But the Syria issue has clouded its attempts to win acceptance by other Arab nations, which are deeply suspicious of its ties with Iran.

Syria in Crisis

The Syrian regime is targeting, torturing and capturing children, United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said on March 28.

Pillay said the action seems to be "systematic and targeted" and believes there is enough evidence to refer Syria and its leader, President Bashar al-Assad, to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Read more. 

Syria featured prominently in addresses delivered by Arab leaders at the summit's open session, which lasted more than four hours.

Leaders are considering arming the Syrian rebels and creating a safe haven for the opposition along the Turkish-Syrian border to serve as a humanitarian refuge or staging ground for anti-regime forces.

The leader of Libya's National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, spoke of the "scenes of torture and slaughter committed by the Syrian regime against our brothers and sisters in Syria." 

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby called on the Syrian regime to immediately implement Annan's peace plan and warned that the world was running out of patience with its failure to move toward a solution.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Iraq rejects violence and bloodshed in Syria and called for a peaceful solution to end the conflict there and, echoing the language found in a draft communiqué from the summit, said the Syrian people had a legitimate right to freedom and democracy.

Offering a glimpse of Qatar's thinking on the Syrian crisis, Sheikh Hamad said it would be a "disgrace to all of us if the sacrifices of the Syrian people go to waste."