Abstentions, blast mar pan-Arab forum deliberations

Arab leaders on Thursday urged a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria at a landmark summit in Baghdad, marred by stayaways and a mortar attack near the Iranian embassy as the meeting opened.

Only nine visiting leaders of the 22-member Arab League turned up for the summit, the first to be held in the Iraqi capital in more than 20 years. Syria, which has been suspended from the pan-Arab body, was not invited.

The meeting was opened by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon who called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to move swiftly to implement a peace plan crafted by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

But reflecting the rift among Arab countries on steps they believe should be taken to end the bloodletting in Syria, officials said a final summit statement would not call on Assad to quit nor consider arming the rebels against him as some states have demanded.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two states seeking the most aggressive measures on Damascus, only sent envoys to Baghdad. Qatar explained its decision as being designed to send a “message” to the host, Iraq, which has taken a softer position than most other League members on its neighbour and trading partner.

Even as the summit got under way, Syrian security forces assailed rebel strongholds across the country, a day after Mr. Assad's regime made clear it would not abide by any Arab League initiatives. At least 23 people were killed in clashes in Syria on Thursday, said monitors.

While regional officials wanted to tackle a wide variety of issues, ranging from the Arab-Israel conflict to jumpstarting the bloc's economies, the summit was firmly focused on Syria, where monitors say nearly 10,000 people have died in a year-long revolt against Assad's rule.

In his speech opening the summit, Mr. Ban called for Syrian authorities to implement Mr. Annan's peace plan and for an end to violence ravaging the country.

“It is essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation. There is no time to waste,” he said.

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah called on Damascus to “listen to the language of reason and wisdom and end all sorts of violence against its people,” saying “prolonging the crisis in Syria will only make it more complicated”.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, meanwhile, said while his country was against military intervention, Damascus was only interested in “extending the conflict” so Mr. Assad's regime could “negotiate ... from a position of strength”.

Arab leaders have said they will call at the summit for talks between the Syrian government and opposition based on Mr. Annan's six-point peace plan, according to a draft copy of the Baghdad Declaration obtained by AFP.

The region's leaders “denounce the violence, murder and bloodshed, and are in favour of a political solution via national dialogue,” said the document, to be issued after the summit.

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