Arab Leaders Seek Protection for Iraq's Sunnis

Participants in a summit of Arab leaders urge Iraq to change its constitution and military to include more Sunnis. The group also wants Iraqis to stop uprooting former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Riyadh, the king of Saudi Arabia has told Arab leaders gathered there that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is illegal. That is a surprisingly strong denunciation from a long-time ally. At the summit that ends there today, Arab leaders will also endorse their own initiative designed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Riyadh and he joins us to talk about that summit. Hello.

PETER KENYON: Hello, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin with the Saudi King Abdullah and his statement about the U.S., also the fact that he seems to have moved front and center rather suddenly in the Arab world.

KENYON: Well, it has been something of a coming-out party for King Abdullah. As we watched the arrival of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday, there was a sense of Egypt passing the role of Arab mediator over to the Saudis. And King Abdullah did his best to reinforce that impression yesterday. He pleased a lot of people here with that comment about the illegal foreign occupation. Basically, people here say if you want to be seen as an independent Arab leader, you have to distance yourself from the United States. But the king also sharply criticized his fellow Arab leaders for sitting on the diplomatic sidelines while foreign powers intervened around the Arab world.

MONTAGNE: And then the main substance of this summit is a re-launching of a peace initiative that the Saudis put forth back in 2002 for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tell us what they're proposing and if it has any better a chance this time around.

KENYON: There are no changes to the initiative. Israel is required to withdraw the 1967 borders and negotiate a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue. And in exchange, the Arab states would normalize relations with Israel. Now, initially, when U.S. officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might have a new Mideast proposal, there were some optimism here, but as the details came out, the level of skepticism rose.

In private, delegates are saying here they haven't seen anything yet to indicate the U.S. is prepared at this time to exert the kind of political pressure that would force Israel to move towards a viable Palestinian state kind of a deal. They also note that the unanimous Arab endorsement of the new Palestinian unity government, including Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah, doesn't really hide the fact that the Palestinians are deeply divided and really unable to move forward on their own.

Let me quote Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa who said, "Active monitoring is the watch word now. We have to keep a close eye on these efforts in case they fail or fall short," which in his words, "is very likely."

MONTAGNE: And Peter, so far there's been very little mention of Iran at this summit, even though at this moment there's a dramatic standoff between Iran and Britain over 15 British marines and sailors. Why is that?

KENYON: Just this morning we're getting word of a meeting between the Iranian foreign minister and the U.N. secretary general. But other than that, it's been remarkable to see this escalating incident develop while the Arab leaders, many of whom are quite upset with Iran's behavior, largely avoid the subject. The occasional mention to a regional nuclear problem, more often than not, refers to the arsenal that Israel is believed to possess, not any Iranian ambitions.

While there is little mention of it in public, however, the overwhelming concern among many delegates here is the possibility of an American military strike against Iran. In private, delegates say that could be a regional catastrophe. Having seen the American performance in Iraq, these delegates have serious doubts that the U.S. could take on Iran successfully.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where an Arab summit winds up today.

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