Empty seat at league talks

CAIRO (Reuters) — Iraq left its seat empty at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers on Iraq on Wednesday, carrying out its threat to boycott the Arab League event in protest at remarks by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Eyewitnesses and diplomatic sources had earlier said Raad Al Alousi, Iraq’s delegate to the Cairo-based league, did attend the session and observed the proceedings from the sidelines.

But Alousi and a senior Arab League official, Hesham Youssef, said neither the delegate nor any member of his staff were present. “None of us went,” Alousi told Reuters.

The Iraqi government said on Tuesday it would boycott the meeting because of Mubarak’s assertion that Shiite Arabs were more loyal to Iran than to their own countries.

The diplomatic sources said Alousi did not speak and left the room on several occasions to consult by telephone with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

Officials at the session were from Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Algeria, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as league Secretary General Amr Musa.

A statement issued after the meeting said the committee “strongly regretted” the absence of Iraq and would consider the session open indefinitely in the hope that Iraq will attend.

It said the Arab League would try to open an office in Baghdad by the end of April, as agreed at the Arab summit in Khartoum last month, and that consultations would continue on holding a reconciliation meeting of Iraqi politicians.

A preparatory conference of Iraqi politicians took place under Arab League sponsorship in Cairo last November but had little effect on the situation on the ground.

Diplomats said that even if Iraq had taken part fully in Wednesday’s Arab League meeting, there is little Arab governments could do to end the violence in Iraq.

Jordan has also offered to host a meeting of Iraqi religious leaders on April 22 under Arab League sponsorship.

Mubarak, whose country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, upset the Iraqi government and Shiite leaders in Gulf countries by casting doubt on the patriotism of Arab Shiites.

In an interview with the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya, he also said that civil war had more or less started in Iraq — an interpretation rejected by the Iraqi government.

Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad tried again on Wednesday to reduce the impact of Mubarak’s remarks.

Awad said Mubarak meant that Iraqi Shiites were sympathetic to Iran because of the Shiite religious sites in Iraq and because of their relationship as neighbours.

“What the president said reflected his deep anxiety at current developments in Iraq and his hope that the political process will succeed,” Awad said.

“Egypt and President Mubarak do not discriminate between Iraqis … They are one people,” he added.

But the rise to power of Iraq’s Shiite community and the prospect of talks on Iraq between Iran and the United States have made some Sunni Arab leaders anxious.

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