There is something about Iraq and the Arab League. Whenever they come together to host the most visible and largest display of Arab unity the atmosphere is vitiated by one major controversy or another. The first time Baghdad hosted the summit in 1978 the Arab world was in a state of shock over the Camp David peace deal between Egypt and Israel. Twelve years later in 1990 Iraq was staring down at Kuwait in preparation for the subsequent invasion of its neighbour, casting a huge dark cloud over the summit.
In the lead up to the Arab League summit in Baghdad from March 27 to 29, there were deadly blasts in Iraq last week which killed more than 50 people. This summit promises to be the most momentous of all. It's the first since the Arab Spring blossomed, driving away four dictatorial regimes from power, tearing at a fifth one, and in general setting the entire Arab nation into profound thought over the prevailing state of affairs.
Host Iraq itself has embarked on a journey down the exciting but untested path of popular elected rule, putting behind it a decade of turmoil, invasion and unspeakable violence. The sectarian divisions that Saddam Hussain so skilfully exploited to divide and rule the country for three decades continue to haunt the people. There are any number of disgruntled segments in society that would want to disrupt the summit next week.
In the run up to the meeting, the Iraqi government has closed Baghdad's airport to all traffic except those concerned with the event and has deployed some 100,000 security personnel, turning the capital city into a virtual fortress. This in itself confers on the conference an air of high tension that has plagued Iraq for years, raising questions over the wisdom of holding the summit now.
However, an even bigger question on the lips of many is what is the Arab League doing in Iraq? Where was the League when Iraq was being ripped apart by the US-led occupation that got rid of a dictator but pitted Iraqi against Iraqi in endless cycles of bloodletting? Where were the Arab countries?
The concept of an ‘Arab role' in Iraq hardly exists and disagreements over events of the past nine years remain sharp among member countries, ruling out the possibility of any constructive role they might play in promoting peace in Iraq. Even before the leaders gather in the garrison city that is Baghdad, one is inclined to rule out any such notions.
The summit may skirt Iraq, but it will be linked to the two important issues — the Arab Spring and the restructuring of the Arab League to make it more effective, especially in the wake of popular expectations stoked by the uprisings. And of course there is Palestine, the eternal cause celebre of the Arabs. These issues can be expected to figure in the Baghdad Declaration along with the aspirations of the people.
But it is the challenges facing the host country that will test the leaders' diplomatic skills the most. Hopes of persuading Iraq's deeply-divided and highly-politicised factions into any sort of cooperation are slim, if any. The situation on the ground remains too toxic to allow conditions for domestic compromise or give-and-take to take root.
In any case, any Arab role in Iraq will be influenced by the positions the League adopted before and after 2003, the year of the US-led invasion. Before that event, the Arab League was steadfastly opposed to the use of military force against the Saddam regime, whatever the threat it posed to neighbours. In the first three years after the occupation, the League held the US responsible for safeguarding Iraq's unity and territorial integrity.
Subsequently, as the Iraqis shakily put together their democratic facades, held elections and began to cobble together a federal system of governance, the collective Arab response remained weak. There were worries about the fallout from the Iraqi experiment. It lacked a coherent strategy to deal with the situation with divisions emerging between supporters and critics of the new Iraq.
Fortunately, things are looking up, with improvements in the security situation in the country. The reopening of Arab diplomatic missions in Baghdad and Iraqi diplomatic initiatives to restore broken relations eventually led to the Arab League agreeing to the forthcoming summit.
In the opinion of many, it is in the Arab League's interest to close its ranks in view of the unfolding confrontation between the US and Iran, whose influence in today's Iraq is alarmingly high. The Americans would also like to see a successful Arab summit in Baghdad, coming as it does just three months after the US troops pulled out.
For Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki playing host to the rest of the Arab world would be a sure way of strengthening the legitimacy of his government and its ability to tame Iraq's armed groups, if not control them. His search for national reconciliation, however, remains elusive.
Tarek Al Hashemi, the estranged and fugitive vice-president, who is accused by the government of abetting terrorism, has hinted that he would be happy if the summit leaders declined to attend because of the security situation. Eyad Alawi, head of the Iraqiya List and Al Maliki's bitter rival, is threatening to submit a memorandum to the summit leaders listing a host of unresolved issues, including security failures, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, marginalisation of opponents, among others.
The overload of issues concerning Iraq ought to give Arab leaders reason enough to distance themselves from the domestic political wrangling and search for a comprehensive, inclusive strategy to deal with the host nation. A united Iraq is not incompatible with a federal system and this is a message one would expect to come out of the Baghdad Declaration in an unambiguous tone. A strong Iraq is vital to bringing stability to the Arab League at a time when an important member, Syria, remains expelled from the League and there is political uncertainty all around.
There is reason to believe that holding the first Arab League summit amid the Arab Spring in "Fortress Baghdad" at a time of grave political and security crisis may turn out to be Mission Impossible. The Arab people deserve better.
Shakir Noori is a Dubai-based journalist and author.