BAGHDAD - Arab foreign ministers met on Wednesday in Baghdad to debate a draft resolution calling on Damascus to end violence and hold talks with the opposition, on the eve of a landmark summit in Iraq.
The Syria crisis, in which monitors say almost 10,000 people have died in a bloody crackdown on a year-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, has loomed large over the first such Arab meetings to be held in Baghdad in over 20 years, which officials insist will tackle a wide range of regional issues.
Twelve foreign ministers arrived in the Iraqi capital for the talks, which were attended by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and were to tackle events in the Palestinian territories, Yemen and Somalia, but have centred around neighbouring Syria.
“Our brothers in Syria are continuing to suffer from the regime there,” Libyan Foreign Minister Ashur bin Khayyal said, opening the meeting held in the Jerusalem room of the former Republican Palace in Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country rejects foreign intervention in Syria, but supports the rights of Syrians to determine their future.
“We reject any outside interference in the Syrian crisis,” Zebari told the meeting.
“We support the legitimate ambitions of the Syrian people for freedom and democracy and their right to determine their future and choose its rulers,” he said. “And we insist on a political solution.”
After opening remarks, the session was closed to the media.
Syria, a member of the 22-member Arab League, was not invited to the summit and has been suspended from the pan-Arab body.
Damascus said on Wednesday that it would reject any initiative from the Arab League.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told journalists that Iraq was proposing the Syrian authorities and opposition choose a consensus figure to whom the power to negotiate internally and externally would be transferred.
The proposal suggests that “the powers be transferred to someone the opposition and the authorities in Syria think can negotiate and manage a mature dialogue,” Dabbagh said.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi earlier said “the Syrian subject will have a significant place in discussions” between foreign ministers.
“I think that the ministers’ meeting … and the Arab summit will support” a six-point plan put forward by UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan and reportedly accepted by Damascus on Tuesday, Arabi said.
Annan’s deputy Nasser al-Qudwa was due in Baghdad on Wednesday to brief ministers on the ex-UN secretary general’s talks over the past week in Beijing and Moscow.
Both powers have been criticised for blocking UN Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s crackdown.
In Kuwait on his way to attend the summit, UN 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.
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 that “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.”
Zebari has said he expects a resolution on Syria, but added he did not think Arab leaders would call on Assad to step down.
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 being discussed in the three days of talks in Iraq.
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.