Still Wounded, Baghdad Hosts Arab Summit

The Arab League is meeting in Baghdad for the first time in more than 20 years. While little in the way of major policy is expected to come out of the summit, after years of violence and war, it's a marvel the summit is happening at all.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Here's another milestone for Iraq. For the first time in more than two decades, the Arab League is meeting in Baghdad. Little in the way of major policy is expected to come out of tomorrow's summit, but as NPR's Kelly McEvers reports, after years of violence and war, it's a marvel the gathering is happening at all.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: We are standing out in front of the Sheridan Hotel. It's one of a handful of hotels that was renovated here in Baghdad specifically for the Arab Summit. The Iraqi government reportedly spend a half a billion dollars on renovations of the city, the hotels, the plots of grass, the new flowers planted along the boulevards and the streets.

In certain parts of Baghdad it looks like a new city, but of course business has ground to a halt as security measures are so tight that much of the city has been closed down.

Not very far from Sheridan is a middle-class neighborhood that's usually hopping into night with open shops and restaurants. Now it's a ghost town. Political science student Abul Asal says at least some of the money should have been spent on basic services that most Iraqis still don't have, like clean water and regular electricity.

ABUL ASAL: (Through translator) Had this money gone to the people in need for housing or other needs, it would have at least raised the living standard of people from the lower class to at least the middle class.

MCEVERS: Iraqi officials say the people of this country will thank them later for removing Iraq's pariah status and opening it up for trade with its Arab neighbors.

Pounding on his desk while he speaks, Iraq foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari says that pariah status started the day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: This country was isolated with sanctions, was blindfolded since 1990.

MCEVERS: The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq didn't help. As the security situation got worse, Iraq accused its Arab neighbors of allowing Islamist militants into the country. Security in Iraq is much better than before, but attacks are still pretty common. Just yesterday, authorities say they stopped a suicide bomber at a checkpoint in West Baghdad. His vest bomb blew up when he was shot by police. One policeman died and two more were injured.

Iraqis say the only way officials could pull off this summit was to basically halt all normal life in the city. All government officials were given the week off. Checkpoints are everywhere, and bridges are closed. Any Iraqi who needs to get to work has to walk for hours.

Those attending the summit must have a special badge, but the clearance process has been slow and confusing. At one summit event, a manager for the BBC presses an Iraqi government official to get his badge.

Still despite the hiccups, it is surprising to see a city like Baghdad play host to so many foreign visitors and VIPs. Mansoor al Jamri writes a column about the region for a newspaper he runs in nearby Bahrain. He says not only does this summit legitimize the new Iraq, it also legitimizes Arab countries like Tunisia and Libya where uprisings installed new leaders.

That, he says, makes up for the fact that this summit is unlikely to pass any new policy on the pressing issue of the day: the so far unsuccessful uprising in Syria.

The Iraq hosted summit will not call on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down, but he says it will urge Syria to begin some kind of political transition.

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: Well, I think Iraq now has an opportunity to go back to the fold of the Arab League, and therefore to bet all their cards on the Syrian regime would be the bad option.

MCEVERS: But for Shiite-dominated Iraq to bet on the Sunni-dominated opposition in Syria would not be wise either, he says. That's why Jamri says Iraq will push for a more neutral resolution on Syria, a resolution that's acceptable to Iraq and all its newfound Arab friends.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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