What the Arab League can learn from Iraq

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A man walks past a security guard at the venue of a meeting of Arab League finance ministers in Baghdad (27 March 2012)Image source, AFP
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The cost of the summit will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars

We all like the place to look nice when we have guests over. Few of us though go to the trouble of painting the trees and grass.

But Iraq has not had much to show off about in recent years, so it is easy to forgive their enthusiasm along the airport road as they host the Arab League summit for the first time in more than two decades.

More importantly, this is the first high-profile event being held in the country since US troops pulled out in December.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki wants to show that his nation can now stand on the world stage without being propped up by an American-made crutch.

The people of the Baghdad would be happier if they could show the world they can now switch the lights on.

"Why couldn't they have spent the money fixing the electricity?" said one Iraqi man.

The truth is, while the cost of the summit will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, it is a drop in the ocean compared with the hundreds of billions spent over the last nine years by the US and Iraqi governments.

Yet the capital still has bad roads, long power-cuts and a shaky water and sewerage system.

Its infrastructure is a scandal. Which raises the question: "Where did all that money go?"

Image source, AFP
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The summit will be a test for Nouri Maliki's government following the violence of recent years

'No democracy'

Iraqi human rights campaigner Shirouk Abayachi says the problem started with "all the US military generals, who came to Iraq with money in their bags".

"The corruption was there before, but they could have corrected it," she says.

"Instead they built on it, they escalated this system of corruption [and] now it's everywhere. It's even worse than the Italian mafia."

The US neo-conservative dream was that a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq would be a beacon of democracy for the rest of the Arab world to follow.

Thanks to the Arab Spring, some of the region's people have managed to get rid of their authoritarian rulers by themselves. Those new governments are looking much more promising than the one the Americans left behind in Iraq.

"There is no democracy here," said Adnan Hussein, editor-in-chief of al-Mada newspaper, after he had spent several hours negotiating his way through summit inspired security checkpoints in downtown Baghdad.

Mr Hussein is one of those brave Iraqi journalists still trying to shine a light on the workings of the opaque - and he believes corrupt - institutions left behind by the US occupation.

It has brought him deaths threats and intimidation from all sides.

"Technically, we have freedom because we have no law to limit freedom. But, practically, we have no freedom," he said.

"Every month or so a journalist is killed; every week a journalist is tortured."

Things, though, have improved after years of barbarity. But in Iraq those improvements are measured on a very different scale.

"Children are still being kidnapped" but now it is "only for money", an Iraqi colleague said.

If you pay up you get your child back. Alive. In the old days, if you paid up you often got only a body, sometimes not even that. And you suspected it was probably your next-door neighbour who sold you out.

Image source, Reuters
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There are fears that insurgents could seek to cause maximum disruption by targeting the summit

Battleground for influence

Nine years ago this week I was among the small number of journalists who had stayed behind to see the US forces storm into Baghdad.

I watched the now famous statue being torn down. People in the West assumed it was an important iconic monument. In fact, it had been built only a year earlier. Few Iraqis knew it even existed.

Iraqi society then was a mystery to the West.

The invaders overestimated the sectarian divide that existed before the war, then built it into the political institutions they created. Iraq is living with that legacy today.

"Iraq had different cultures and religions, but people did not think in a sectarian way," said Dr Nabil Younis, the head of International Studies at Baghdad University.

"The [Iraqi] Governing Council set up by [the Americans] brought sectarianism into Iraq and then the politicians and militias used it."

Image source, AP
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The summit will be dominated by Syria, whose president the Arab League wants to step down

As much as the Iraqi government wants this summit to symbolise Iraq's renewal, its agenda will be dominated by Syria.

Syria is a country ruled by the Baath party. Its society is a patchwork of religions and sects. The underlying tensions between those communities have been suppressed by decades of dictatorial rule. The regime has killed thousand of its own people using unimaginable brutality. Does that sound familiar?

Post-Saddam Iraq was a battleground for influence between the Sunni Muslim Gulf states and the West; and Shia Muslim Iran. Iran won.

The West and the Gulf would like to rebalance the account in Syria.

So perhaps the most important lessons the delegates, and the new Arab League and United Nations envoy, Kofi Annan, can take from their visit to Baghdad this week is a reminder of how not to deal with a post-Bashar al-Assad Syria.