Arab League Summit Shines a Light on a Forgotten State

Having long been seen by most Arab countries as a focus of terror, Iraq this week hosts an Arab summit meeting.

It would be best not to spend this coming weekend in Baghdad. Since yesterday the city has been "occupied" by Iraqi security forces. Government office employees and schoolteachers have been asked not to show up for work until April 1. All the streets leading to the large hotels - the Sheraton and the Meridien - have been put under curfew. Police roadblocks have been set up along the main streets, there is a strict ban on using motorcycles and motorized rickshaws, and army sappers are randomly checking ordinary cars to try to identify sabotage attempts.

From tomorrow until the end of the weekend Iraq will be celebrating one of the most significant events in its history after its liberation from American occupation. It will host an Arab summit meeting after having been treated for many years by most Arab countries as a foreign body - an Iranian extension and, above all, a focus of terror from which it was best to stay away. For those few days Iraq will be the star pupil of the Arab classroom. Most Arab leaders - not all of them - will come there mainly to discuss what is happening in neighboring Syria and to try to bring it into the Arab bosom and free it from the Iranian embrace. According to estimates in Iraq, preparations for the conference and ensuring the personal security of the leaders have cost about $500 million - a tremendous price for a state in its infancy.

A municipal worker watering flowers in Baghdad in preparation for the summit.

It is not expected that fateful decisions will be reached at the summit - especially as one day after it ends the countries friendly to Syria will convene in Istanbul to try to reach agreement on imposing additional sanctions on the country - perhaps cutting off diplomatic relations with it and perhaps establishing "security zones" in its territory. The establishment of security zones would necessitate military intervention and practical decisions with regards to arming the Free Syrian Army - the main opposition army group, which last week requested urgent aid in light of the depleting stock of ammunition in its possession.

However, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sees the very fact that the summit is being convened in his country as an important opportunity to put Iraq on the Arab and international agenda - after it has almost been forgotten following the departure of the last of the American soldiers.

To this end Maliki embarked on a series of gestures toward Arab countries that threatened not to attend the summit. He signed an agreement with Egypt for the return of monies his country owes to Egyptian workers who worked in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's time and who have not yet been paid. He has agreed to grant flight and landing permission to Kuwait's national airline and, more importantly, to pay $300 million in damages for the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990 (in return Kuwait has forgiven a debt of $1.2 billion ). He has promised Saudi Arabia to try to commute death sentences imposed on Saudi citizens imprisoned in Iraq, and he has also declared that non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran would not be invited to this conference, unlike previous conferences. Turkey does not bother participants in the Baghdad conference but Iran is a red flag, both because of its disputes with a number of the Gulf states and mainly because of its policy regarding Syria.

The Iranian connection

All of these measures have still not freed Iraq from dependence on Iran, its most important trade partner (trade amounting to between $8 billion and $10 billion annually ). It is a mutual dependence, since Iran manages to import goods, automotive fuel and spare parts via Iraq by means of straw companies opened in Iraq by Iranian citizens, which purchase the merchandise legally in the Gulf states. The goods are transferred to Iraq and from there they are brought into Iran by networks of smugglers.

American intelligence suspects Iraq is also allowing Iranian planes carrying weapons to Syria to fly through its airspace. Baghdad has vigorously denied this accusation, but when the American administration demanded that Iraq force suspicious Iranian planes to land in its territory it refused. At the same time Iraq is also serving as a transit zone for weaponry intended for Syrian rebels: Sunni tribal heads from northwestern Iraq are gathering arms and ammunition, which they smuggle across the long border with Syria to the centers of the rebellion.

Foreign pressure on Iraq - both American and Arab - is just part of the problem facing the country, which is still having difficulty preventing terror. Every day in the all the media in Iraq it is possible to find stories about explosive devices that were dismantled and about civilians who were abducted and/or murdered for political reasons, in addition to large-scale attacks in which dozens of people are killed.

Maliki has been accused of money laundering, and his relations with the Kurds are on the brink of a serious crisis in the wake of the Kurds' decision not to hand over to the government Tariq al Hashemi - the vice president whom Maliki accuses of having initiated terror operations and who has fled to the Kurdish region. Maliki's opponents call him a dictator. Despite this, the opposition in Iraq does not have enough power to depose him and apparently neither the United States nor Iran has any interest in getting rid of him. At this stage Maliki is apparently the only one who can both navigate Iraq between its various pressures and preserve the unity of the country that is held together with loose stitches. He is no great democrat, but at least he is not slaughtering his own citizens.