Fighting between Syrian security forces and rebels killed at least 21 people on Thursday as Arab leaders gathered at a summit in Baghdad to press Damascus for rapid implementation of a peace plan that President Bashar al-Assad has said he can accept.
Syria will top the agenda of the 23rd Arab Summit which is the first to be held by the Arab leaders after what has been dubbed as the “Arab Spring.”
Syria, which was not invited to the summit and has been suspended from the pan-Arab body, said on Wednesday that it would reject any initiative from the Arab League.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi said on Wednesday he expected the summit to support a six-point plan put forward by U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan and reportedly accepted by Damascus on Tuesday.
Violence continues unabated
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence, reported that eight members of the security forces were wounded in a clash with armed defectors in Dael, in the southern province of Deraa.
In the town of Kherbet Ghazaleh, surrounded by the army and security forces, loud explosions were heard. In northern Hama province, an army convoy was ambushed and two soldiers killed. In Idlib province three people died when the army launched a raid in a rural area east of the town of Maarat al-Nuaman.
The Observatory reported clashes between army and defectors near the town of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border. In rural Damascus province explosions were heard and smoke was seen rising from building in the town of Harasta.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said that two colonels were assassinated in the northern city of Aleppo on Thursday.
“Four terrorists shot Abdul Karim al-Rai and Fuad Shaaban ... while they were on their way to work,” SANA said.
Annan, an ex-U.N. secretary general, held talks over the past week in Beijing and Moscow. Both powers have been criticized for blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s crackdown, but they have backed Annan’s efforts.
In Kuwait on his way to attend the summit, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged Assad to “immediately” implement Annan’s plan. “I urge President al-Assad to put commitments into immediate effect. There is no time to waste,” he said.
The Baghdad summit will steer clear of calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quit or for his foes to be armed, both divisive issues, Iraq’s foreign minister said on Wednesday.
Hoshyar Zebari’s confirmation that the 22-member Arab League will steer clear of the strong moves advocated by Qatar and Saudi Arabia came on the eve of the landmark summit.
The Syria crisis, in which monitors say almost 10,000 people have died in a bloody crackdown on a year-long revolt, has loomed large over the three days of meetings in Iraq, the first such talks hosted by Baghdad in over 20 years.
“The Arab League initiative is clear and did not demand that Bashar step down,” Zebari said after a ministerial meeting. “We (foreign ministers) also did not ask for that and the upcoming decision will not go in this direction.”
It “is up to the people of Syria to decide, to choose, to elect their leaders. It's not up to the League or to anybody else,” he said, according to AFP.
Asked whether the arming of Syrian rebels was raised, Zebari said: “We did not discuss this subject at all.”
The two issues have pitted countries which have called for Assad to leave and advocated sending arms to rebel groups against those pushing for political reconciliation, such as Iraq.
“The subject of Syria is urgent and it is no longer a regional, local, national, or Arab subject,” Zebari said. “It is now an issue discussed on an international level.”
“We cannot be neutral about this subject or on the subject of violence and daily killings.”
After opening remarks, the session, which was held in the Jerusalem Room of the former Republican Palace in Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone, was closed to the media.
A draft resolution to be debated in Baghdad urges the “Syrian government and all opposition factions to deal positively with the envoy (Annan) by starting serious national dialogue,” according to a copy of the text obtained by AFP.
It also says “the Syrian government should immediately stop all actions of violence and killing, protect Syrian civilians and guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstrations for achieving the demands of the Syrian people.”
“The priority is to end the violence in Syria,” United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Qarqash said in Baghdad, according to Reuters. “We support Annan’s proposal.”
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the League would try to agree on how to implement the Annan plan, including possible talks with Assad’s opponents, but gave no details.
The fallout from other Arab uprisings -- which toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and put pressure for reform on other autocratic regimes in the region -- are also on the agenda for the summit.
Six visiting heads of state have arrived in Baghdad for the summit so far, and Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is expected to make the first visit by a Kuwaiti head of state since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of August 1990.
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani said in a TV interview that his country was sending a “message” to Iraq’s leadership by sending a lower level representative to the Arab summit.
Qatar, which wanted a hard line to be adopted against Assad, is to be represented at the summit by its ambassador to the Cairo-based Arab League, Saif bin Muqaddam.
Egypt’s ambassador to the organization, Afifi Abdel Wahab, told journalists that the next summit will be held in the Qatari capital Doha.
More than 100,000 members of Iraq’s forces are providing security in Baghdad, and Iraq has spent upwards of $500 million to refurbish major hotels, summit venues and infrastructure.
Despite the dramatically tighter measures, a suicide bomber at a police checkpoint in west Baghdad killed one policeman and wounded two others on Tuesday, officials said.
A week ago, al-Qaeda attacks nationwide killed 50 people, including three in a car bombing opposite the foreign ministry.
Baghdad hopes a successful summit will crown its return to the Arab body after years of internal conflict following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Western and Arab leaders will meet in Istanbul on April 1 to discuss Syrian transition, and U.S., Turkish and Arab officials are pushing the divided Syrian opposition to unite, though it has yet to agree on how to form a post-Assad government.
Kuwaiti emir in historic visit
Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah arrived in Baghdad on Thursday for a landmark Arab summit, in the first visit by the Kuwaiti head of state since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion.
Footage broadcast on Iraqiya state TV showed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Kuwaiti leader walking hand in hand down a red carpet at the Baghdad airport.
Maliki visited Kuwait earlier this month.
Saddam ordered his forces into Kuwait in 1990, only to have them routed by an international coalition in 1991. He was eventually ousted from power in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.