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Baghdad welcomes Arab League guests ahead of historic summit

Event to mark Iraq's debut on the Arab world stage.

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Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, left, and Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, right, shake hands March 25, 2012 in Baghdad, Iraq. (Hadi Mizban-Pool/Getty Images)

Arab dignitaries began streaming into Baghdad today in advance of the historic Arab League summit to be held there, the Washington Post reported

The meeting, which formally convenes on Thursday but is being billed as a three-day event with guests from 20 nations already arriving, is Iraq's first opportunity to host since 1990.

CNN quoted Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari today saying the event brings together Iraq's "new leaders, its new constitution, its new policies, its new political system," describing it as "the Arab Spring summit" due to the noticeable absence of long-time Arab heavyweights like former Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, ex-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and former Tunisian and Yemeni leaders, all of whom were ousted by popular protest over the last year.

Iraq seems to be hoping the summit will usher in a springtime of its own after years of often-frosty relations, with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani openly humiliated over his Kurdish background at the event just last year, according to The Washington Post

Agence-France Press speculated that the arrival of new Islamist leaders ushered in by the leadership shakeup in the region "could give the League a more Islamist identity, after decades of the bloc promoting pan-Arab nationalism."

New and old alike, “Iraq today embraces its Arab brothers,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Musawi, told The Washington Post today. “We know very well that holding the summit in Baghdad will restore our economic and political significance as a major player and a pivotal state in the region.”

The $500-million event is being seen as something like a rite of acceptance for Iraq within the Arab community after US troops withdrew in December. 

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It is also the first-ever Arab League summit to see a major Shiite leader like al-Maliki play a leading role, noted Reuters, with Iraq home to a majority Shiite population -- unlike most of the attending nations.

Plans for Baghdad to hold the event there last year had to be cancelled due to security concerns. CNN said the government is taking enormous security precautions this year, particularly after a string of what appeared to be coordinated bombings shook the nation last week. 

The Interior Ministry issued a statement today hailing the summit as a "great political achievement," CNN reported, making a point of denouncing violent extremists as "racing to prove their propaganda presence by carrying out hysterical acts aiming to affect the atmosphere of the summit."

The summit's agenda is not yet clear, but AFP suggested that Qatar will try to use the event as a platform to call for coordinated intervention in Syria because it heads an Arab League committee focused on the crisis there.

As for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad himself, he has been disinvited from the summit and League membership suspended over his administration's bloody crackdown on a year-long revolt that rights groups say has killed over 8,000 people.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/iraq/120326/Baghdad-welcomes-Arab-League-guests