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Arab world deceived by empty promises

Divisions in the Arab League were exposed recently and to make matters worse, the US has not honoured its word with regards to Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

Image Credit:Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News
Gulf News

These are not the best of times for the Arab World, where kith and kin are hopelessly divided more than at any time in recent years.

The internecine fighting is widespread: Iraqis are fighting Iraqis, Palestinians are feuding with Palestinians, and Syrians and Lebanese remain at loggerheads. And so far, all attempts to heal these schisms have not yielded any positive results.

Only half the number of Arab heads of state showed up last weekend at the summit conference in Damascus of the 22-member League of Arab States; absent were some of the Arab heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; as well as Jordan, the latter two are signatories of peace treaties with Israel.

An attempt before the conference to reconcile the Palestinian factions -Hamas of Gaza and Fatah of the West Bank - sponsored by the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has not been fruitful.

In Iraq, the Shiite-led and US-supported Baghdad government has been engaged in bloody clashes with a key Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army of the hardline, anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. Over 450, mostly civilians, were killed in these clashes bringing the number of civilians killed in Iraq in March to over 1,000, up 50 per cent on the February figure, contributing to a reversal of the trend of gradually decreasing violence since June.

The casualties were 1,630, nearly double the February figure. The number of US soldiers who died in Iraq also rose in March, reaching 37 killed across the country, up from 29 in February, according to an AFP tally.

In free-wheeling Lebanon, considered by many as the jewel of the Arab World and its capital Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East, the heart-wrenching discord has been very costly ever since the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and particularly when Parliament failed last November to elect a new president.

Interestingly, the hostility evident among some of the country's splintered leaders has hardly affected the Lebanese public at large.

They pursue their daily chores and nightly escapades without any hesitation or intimidation, although the country has witnessed the assassination of several more leaders in the last two years.

The fact that the Arab summit did not encounter any serious discord was considered, particularly by the Syrians, a success.

Syrian President Bashar Assad went a step further in voicing a reconciliatory statement, offering to join "Arab or non-Arab efforts" to end Lebanon's political crisis "on condition that they are based on Lebanese national consensus".

A three-point Arab peace initiative, which the Syrians but apparently not the Lebanese insist on being implemented simultaneously, called for the election of a consensus president (Lebanese Army General Michel Sulaiman), the formation of a national unity government, and a new electoral law, remains on the table.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa is expected to pursue the negotiations with all parties in the near future.

Meddling

Time will only tell whether the Syrian gesture should be taken at face value, especially by the Lebanese government and the Bush administration, since both have complained loudly about alleged Syrian meddling.

In fact, the US last week had surprisingly urged its Arab allies to think twice before attending the Damascus conference - a request that was virtually unheeded. This prompted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Muallem to declare, " They (the US) did their best to prevent the summit but they failed."

Nevertheless it seemed surprising that the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should be visiting the Middle East while the Arab summit was underway, a step that some saw as an attempt to detract world attention from the Arab conclave.

In fact, whatever her real purpose was, her pronouncements during the trip and her assessment were diminished by the Israeli move to build over 1,700 new houses in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now declared that "These large scale construction projects underscore the disturbing findings of Peace Now's new report that the so-called 'settlement freeze' is a farce."

All eyes will now be turned on how Rice (and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who is to resume peace talks with the Israelis on April 7) will handle this Israeli slap in the face which came just as she reported that the Middle East peace process is "moving in the right direction" following her talks with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

She even went a step further by expressing her belief that the final status agreement was possible before President George W. Bush leave office early next year.

Regrettably, these American promises be they on Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine seem to have an empty ring to them. Hopefully not the Arab leaders' promise in Damascus to reassess by this summer the six-year-old Arab peace initiative which Israel continues to disregard.

George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at ghishmeh@gulfnews.com.

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