Arab League Holds Summit In Baghdad

Arab leaders were gathering in Baghdad for the first Arab summit in the Iraqi capital in decades. The government has spent $500 million preparing for the meeting — including a huge security operation in a city still the scene of bombings and other attacks.

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Foreign ministers of the Arab League are meeting in Baghdad today. It's something of a return to the world stage for the Iraqi capital, marking the first time in two decades Baghdad has hosted this summit of Arab leaders. NPR's Kelly McEvers is there to cover the event and joins us now.

Good morning, Kelly.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Baghdad has been the scene of so much warfare, sectarian violence and other kinds of violence for so long, it seems surprising in a way that it is hosting this Arab League summit, something it hasn't done since 1990. So what kind of landscape, I mean physical and political, is this summit going into?

MCEVERS: It is pretty astounding to see something of this magnitude being held in a place that for so long has been associated with violence. How did they do it? They spent a lot of money basically. You know, Iraq is thought to have the second largest oil reserve in the world. And that oil industry is coming online and they've got money to spend.

So they spent about $500 million contracting Turkish companies to renovate hotels, renovate roads, kind of work the infrastructure - at least from the airport into some of the main parts of town - plant flowers, plant grass, really spruce up the city.

And not just the cosmetic stuff, but also have brought in what's thought to be about 100,000 extra troops to secure the place. There still is violence here in Baghdad, and so that was a major concern. And so in some ways it's a pretty astounding thing to see Baghdad hosting such a major event.

But in order to do it, they really had to lock down the city. Most of our Iraqi colleagues, today, had to walk to work because there are so many checkpoints. Bridges are closed. And what it also means for everyday Iraqis, is that life is actually difficult. They gave everybody the week off, but food prices are going up because traffic can't move around. I mean, people are actually kind of frustrated with the whole thing, honestly.

MONTAGNE: Well, the summit itself is it expected to make any major decisions?

MCEVERS: Well, let's be honest. No. Arab summits by and large don't really make any major decisions. The last really interesting Arab summit was in 1978, actually here in Baghdad. And that was when the Arab League expelled - very dramatically expelled Egypt, you know, for making peace with Israel. And that was a moment when Iraq was really asserting its role in the Arab world.

The '70s and '80s, Baghdad was a major center for the Arab world. Then, you know, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. And ever since then, Iraq was isolated. So Iraqi officials really see this summit as a way for Iraq to kind of reassert itself, reestablish itself in the Arab world.

It wasn't just the invasion of Kuwait, but of course it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq that kept Iraq isolated from its Arab neighbors. And frankly, it feels like it's been played by its neighbors - its non Arab neighbors - Iran, Turkey. You know, this is a way for Iraq to say, hang on, back off, look, we're Arab. We have Arab friends and we're not afraid to use our Arab alliances to get what we want. So the money they spent, the efforts they underwent to make this thing happen, they feel like it's going to be a payoff.

MONTAGNE: And of course the major issue in the region now, the spotlight, is on Syria. And a U.N.-brokered peace agreement calling for a transition to new government appears to have been accepted by Syria's leadership, but the violence continues. What do you think will come out of this Arab League summit regarding Syria?

MCEVERS: There are some leaders in the Arab League who support, you know, resolutions, basically calling for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down. But there is definitely not unanimity on this issue within the Arab League, so we're probably going to see something a little more watered down than that, coming out of the summit this week.

Iraqi officials say that they support a political transition in Syria, possibly a transition from power, but that that transition has to be Syrian-led. It has to be inside Syria and it has to be led by the Syrian people, sort of maintaining the sovereignty of the country is of utmost importance they say.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kelly McEvers speaking to us from Baghdad, where the Arab League is meeting.

Thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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