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At Arab League Summit, High Stakes For Host Nation


I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away this week. Coming up, there are a number of people in the U.S. who continue to insist that President Obama is Muslim, despite his Christian faith. But that begs the question: what does it matter? So what if he were? We'll talk about it what it means to be a Muslim in America in just a bit.

First though, Arab leaders are gathering this week for the Arab League Summit in Baghdad. It's the first summit hosted by Iraq in over 20 years and Baghdad's keen to improve its image amongst it's Arab neighbors. It's also the first summit since the so-called Arab Spring began. Dignitaries from at least 20 countries will attend. We'll talk about what's being discussed at the meeting and what's going on across the region, especially in Syria. But we want to start by taking a closer look at the country that's hosting this year's summit, and for that I'm joined by Adeed Dawisha.

He's a professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio and for right now he is with the Wilson Center as a distinguished scholar here in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

ADEED DAWISHA: Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: Also with us is Ned Parker. He's the current Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and he's the former L.A. Times Baghdad bureau chief. Ned, it's nice to have you with us.

NED PARKER: Thank you.

LYDEN: Ned, Iraq was going to host this summit last year but didn't because of security conditions there and the Arab Spring uprising. What is the country trying to achieve right now? It's spent a great deal of money and gone to a great deal of trouble to put on quite a show.

PARKER: For Iraq and particularly the Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, this is a chance to show that Iraq is once more part of the Arab world after being ostracized following the 2003 invasion by the Americans. The Sunni Arab world viewed Iraq first, as a perhaps a puppet of the Americans and then, perhaps, as a puppet of the Iranians since Iraq is lead by Shiite Islamist parties.

LYDEN: And Professor Dawisha what would you say? You left Iraq when you were 16.

DAWISHA: Yeah, I think is Iraq is really trying to - has been working very hard to prove to the Arab Sunni neighborhood that they are not puppets of the Iranian regime, as Ned quite rightly said. And this in a sense proves that this is - Iraq is part of the Arab family. That the Arab dignitaries who are arriving in Baghdad will not see an Iranian delegation or even an Iranian official. And that kind of is part of the Iraqi effort to be in a sense to get themselves back into the larger Arab domain.

LYDEN: And also, there's other things that they're not going to see, right Ned? I mean, there's been a lot of refurbishment, a lot of money spent, and the security situation though is still very, very difficult. There's been multiple bombings recently in a number of cities.

PARKER: It is. I mean, the situation where the delegations are will be very nice. The hotels have been renovated, it's beautiful. But once you get outside of that bubble, the realities of the street in Baghdad are still one of a country that has been through so much war and suffering over decades and the violence continues to go on. And what's interesting even today, I was corresponding with a friend in Baghdad and I've seen this in Iraqi news reports as well from Iraqi channels. I think the population in Baghdad is very frustrated by the summit because they're living under lockdown.

LYDEN: Professor Dawisha, I'd like to go back to your point that summiteers are not going to see obviously any Iranian officials at the summit. Iran is not part of the Arab League, but what is Prime Minister Maliki trying to show?

DAWISHA: Prime Minister Maliki wants to show his Arab colleagues that he has now joined the club, and that means he presides over a country that is secure over which he holds dominion. He wants to prove to the Arabs and to the world and actually even to, basically, to the Iraqi's themselves that by being brought into the Arab Sunni family, he is the person who represents Iraq.

LYDEN: What does that mean for the Sunni Party? You have the former vice president basically in hiding in Kurdistan.

DAWISHA: Um-hum.

LYDEN: And so do you think his legitimacy will be questioned or not?

DAWISHA: I'm sure that the Saudi's and the Qataris will bring this up that it's not good for the image of Iraq. It's not good for the image of Maliki himself to have these kind of fissures within the so-called political elite in there. Whether he will listen to them is another matter. I mean, I think for him the most important thing is to create the conditions within Iraq where he is no longer challenged, where he's no longer seen as a weak prime minister. And many of his actions over the last six, nine months whether by using the constitutional court to bring him more powers, whether by bringing all of these security forces under his own command, all of these point to a proclivity towards more centralization of power in his own hands.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the Arab League summit, which is taking place this week in Baghdad. With us is political science professor Adeed Dawisha from Miami University in Ohio and also the Wilson Center here in Washington, D.C., and we're also joined by the Council on Foreign Relations' Ned Parker. Ned, let's turn to Syria. Obviously, this is going to be one of the biggest issues that this summit is going to deal with.

PARKER: The most interesting thing in a way is that although the Arab League has taken a stance about trying to end the conflict in Syria, the Arab League itself still remains divided in terms of what the different states want. Saudi Arabia and Qatar see getting rid of Assad as an imperative because it weakens Iran's influence in the region. I think for Iraq they're very concerned about what a state potentially lead by Sunni Islamists would mean for them, how it might embolden in Sunni Arab politicians at home. Jordan is nervous because it to sits on the border with Syria, and Lebanon has its own volatile sectarian dimensions in politics with Hezbollah that makes it weary as well. So, Syria is a time bomb for the region and every member of the Arab League has different motives and wishes.

LYDEN: Yes, Professor Dawisha?

DAWISHA: Yeah, can I say something to that, too. The situation for Assad today is much better than it was in January, but he's been able to basically level a lot of cities, bring them down to heel.

LYDEN: So, just because he's still there you're saying it's better?

DAWISHA: Yeah, and not only that but he is now certainly, seemingly in control at least. And the Free Syrian Army is in retreat. And that's why I, you know, he was able to accept the Kofi Annan plan now, where he would not have been able he'd never have done that, say, in January. He thinks that this ban will not affect his power base to the extent it would have in January.

LYDEN: But even so, is the summit a place where we can really look to Arab leaders doing something with teeth in it, that is going to affect the outcome internally in Syria?

DAWISHA: Well, traditionally, if you look at the Arab League summits, they don't do very much. There's a lot of talking, but there's nothing very much that is accomplished. However, truth be said, I mean, I was very surprised at the initiative that the Arab League had taken vis-a-vis Syria. I mean, when starting with...

LYDEN: When it sent inspectors?

DAWISHA: Yeah, when it sent inspectors when actually then expelled or at least not expelled but suspended Syria when it actually called for Bashar al-Assad, one of their own, to step down. I mean, there's nothing as radical, unless you go back all the way to 1978, when they expelled Egypt after the peace treaty.

LYDEN: Egypt so, um-hum, a lot could happen.

DAWISHA: So, they have been more activist than usual. The thing about the Arab League now is that the country which was chairing the Arab League was Qatar, and Qatar was very militant vis-a-vis Bashar. Well now, the chairmanship has now changed to Iraq, and Iraq of course one of the least militant vis-a-vis Bashar. And so, it will be interesting to see how the Arab League will behave under Iraqi leadership over the next months or so.

LYDEN: Let me ask you about - this is the first summit since the Arab Spring. How do these leaders feel about the future? Do they feel that their own power is challenged? We're now looking at elections in Egypt. We're looking at, basically, a new playbook in the world, in the region.

DAWISHA: It is actually very interesting and it would have been very nice if I were a fly on the wall to sit on these meetings because for the first time you see some - all these new faces that have actually come to power as a result of free and fair elections, something that was never even said in the Arab world. And they're going to be sitting next to people who've been ruling their countries for 45, 50 years.

And we've gotten used to the old club. I mean, it was kind of an old club. Everybody had been together for all these years and after the summit they will all go to the presidential palace and they will sit and chat about what happened 20 years ago, what happened 30 years ago and so on.

LYDEN: Because the power hadn't changed. The leadership hadn't changed.

DAWISHA: Because they've all been sitting on their seats for that long. And now, suddenly, you have all of these new guys coming in and who have come in, basically, riding the waves of a move that actually unseated the people who are basically these guys' best friends and best acquaintances, so...

LYDEN: Well, of course, Hosni Mubarak is not going to be there.

DAWISHA: Hosni Mubarak is not going to...

LYDEN: Moammar Gadhafi's not going to be there.

DAWISHA: Exactly. Silas from Yemen is not going to be there. And so it would be - I mean, it's really interesting to kind of figure out what the dynamics would be between those, the newcomers who've come as a result of a true democratic kind of movement, and those who've been there.

LYDEN: Ned, what will you be looking for in this new movement?

PARKER: Well, I think everything in the Arab world, particularly with these uprisings, is still very much in flux, and where these countries head now remains a question mark in - I mean, I know my colleague here is working on a book about the similarities between the Arab uprisings of the '40s and '50s that were also about these questions of dignity and a wish for better governance and they ended up with the Arab world living under strongmen for decades.

So there are so many question marks about where the Arab world is heading and whether these uprisings lead to a better future or something worse.

LYDEN: Ned Parker is an Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a former L.A. Times Baghdad bureau chief. Also with us was Professor Adeed Dawisha. He's a Woodrow Wilson Center distinguished scholar and professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio. They both joined us here in our studios in Washington.

Thank you both very much for being here.

PARKER: Thank you.

DAWISHA: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.