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Baghdad Arab summit spotlights fault lines

BAGHDAD, March 29 (UPI) -- The Arab League summit that began Thursday in Baghdad has illuminated the political and religious divisions splitting with Arab world, while powerful eastern non-Arab neighbor Iran looks on and tries to pull Iraq's strings.

One of those fractures is between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, branded a would-be dictator by domestic rivals, who is sitting down with the new leaders of countries that have overthrown tyrants in the often-bloody Arab Spring revolutions.

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The meeting of Arab leaders in the cavernous Republican Palace built by Saddam Hussein is the first such gathering since those political convulsions began in Tunisia in January 2011.

It marked the return of Iraq, once a rogue state under Saddam, to the Arab mainstream. But old rivalries, dating from Saddam's invasion two of Iraq's neighbors in a decade, die hard.

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Only nine national leaders out of 20 turned up. The rest sent lower-ranking officials.

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Maliki, a Shiite with old links to Iran, has been busy mending fences with former rivals like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt in a bid to reclaim Iraq's place as a leading Arab power.

But suspicions of Shiite-majority Iraq's relationship with Shiite-dominated Iran linger.

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"Any expectations that the Maliki government will be able to emerge as a significant regional player are likely to be disappointed," remarked Crispin Hawes of the Eurasia Group.

"Among its neighbors, Iraq is viewed with great suspicion and some fear."

A surge of sectarian violence that followed the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in December has heightened tensions between the country's sectarian rivals -- a religious divide that's widening across the region because of Iran's ambitions to become the paramount power.

The summit's agenda will focus heavily on the bloodshed in Iraq's western neighbor Syria, where President Bashar Assad is fighting for survival against an uprising that seeks to topple his brutal regime.

Needless to say, Assad's not attending the long-delayed Baghdad parley -- Syria's membership has been suspended – even though the Syrian violence carries the seeds of a wider conflict.

Most of the league's 21 other members, avidly led by Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies, want Assad to step down and break up the regime dominated by the minority Alawites, an offshoot of the breakaway Shiite sect.

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That would allow these states, overwhelmingly Sunni-dominated, to restore rule by Syria's Sunni majority, and thus block an expansionist drive by Iran, Assad's only real ally, westward into the heart of the Arab world via Lebanon to confront Israel.

But the league, established in March 1945 and for decades little more than an ineffectual talking shop, has been unable to halt the Syrian carnage in which some 9,000 people have been killed.

It's difficult to see what it can do that will put some muscle in its diplomacy and prevent an all-out civil war that would eventually drag other Arab states, particularly Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, into a regional conflict.

The league is deeply divided over what to do in Syria. It could sanction international military action, as it did in 2011 when it effectively authorized NATO, via the United Nations, to bring down Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Gadhafi was widely seen as a brutal dictator best gotten rid of. And few would mourn Assad, who heads the Arab world's only, and widely scorned, republican dynasty after succeeding his strongman father, the late Hafez Assad, in 2000.

But Gadhafi's end hasn't brought peace to Libya, while Yemen and Egypt could well explode again.

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Reprising foreign military intervention in Syria, whose armed forces are equipped with more powerful weapons systems than Gadhafi's were, would be infinitely more dangerous than it was with Libya.

Intervention would likely escalate sectarian fighting that would, at the very least, ignite Sunni-Shiite bloodletting in Lebanon and Iraq.

"The perception is now growing that Assad's regime has survived the tempest and may be around for some time," observed British commentator Simon Tidsall.

"Given that unlovely prospect, the summit is not expected to call for military intervention or overt support for the armed opposition," although Saudi Arabia, Libya and Qatar reportedly are providing fighters and weapons for Assad's opponents.

Meantime, other threats, the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute and Iran's nuclear ambitions, aren't likely to be meaningfully addressed.

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