BAGHDAD — Qatar's prime minister said late Wednesday that his nation was sending Baghdad a "message" with its low-level representation at an Arab summit in the Iraqi capital, criticizing what he said was the marginalization by the country's Shiite-led government of its Sunni Arab minority.
The emir of Kuwait is the only Gulf Arab leader attending the summit, which Iraq had hoped would serve as its debut into the Arab mainstream after two decades of isolation. This reflects increased Sunni-Shia tensions across the region in the aftermath of last year's Arab Spring uprisings, particularly the one against a regime dominated by a Shiite offshoot sect in Sunni-majority Syria and another by majority Shiites in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, also a Gulf Arab nation.
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani, who is also the country's foreign minister, told Al-Jazeera that Syrians have a right to defend themselves against the crackdown by President Bashar Assad's regime, suggesting that his energy-rich nation approves of arming rebels there, or is arming them already.
Sheikh Hamad is one of six Sunni-led Gulf Arab nations whose relations with Iraq have been fraught with tension because of Baghdad's close ties with Shiite Iran and its ambivalence on Syria, where the United Nations says at least 9,000 people have died since an anti-Assad uprising began a year ago.
Majority Shiites have dominated Iraq since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. The nation's once powerful Sunnis complain that the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is concentrating power in the hands of the Shiites. There is a growing desire by Sunni-majority provinces to win autonomy as a way to escape Shiite domination.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the sectarian violence that began shortly after Saddam's ouster but peaked in 2006 and 2007. Tension continues to simmers to this day, with occasional attacks by Sunni militants against Shiites and crackdowns on Sunni areas by the Shiite-led security forces.
Sheikh Hamad told al-Jazeera his energy-rich nation, a key regional player, disapproved of the marginalization in Iraq of "some segments, including the Sunnis," and that this policy was not in the interest of Iraq or the Arab world.
"Qatar wants the Iraqi government to resolve this in a way that unites the Iraqi people and gives everyone their rights through a dialogue involving all parties," he said.
Iraq is hosting the annual Arab summit for the first time since 1990, keen to show it has emerged from years of turmoil and U.S. occupation. But the Syria issue has clouded its attempts to win acceptance by other Arab nations, which are deeply suspicious of its ties with Iran.
In a snub to Baghdad, all but one of the rulers of the six, U.S.-allied Gulf Arab nations were staying away from the summit, sending lower-level figures instead. League officials said the level of representation was aimed at showing their frustration over the lack of more assertive action on Syria.
Instead of its king, Saudi Arabia was sending its ambassador to the Arab League — a worse slap because the post is even lower than the foreign minister level. The League officials said Saudi Arabia and Qatar had wanted Iraq to invite representatives of the Syrian opposition to the summit. Baghdad declined, much to their dismay, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The one Gulf ruler who is attending, Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, was received by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik at Baghdad's international airport and the two leaders held hands as they walked to the facility's VIP lounge.
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, but his army was driven out of the oil-rich nation the following year at the hands of a U.S.-led coalition. Relations between the two neighbors remained tense even after Saddam's 2003 overthrow, but they partially thawed recently. Al-Maliki visited Kuwait earlier this month.
Relations between Iraq and the Gulf Arab nations have also been tense over criticism by Shiite Iraqi politicians and clerics of Bahrain's crackdown on Shiite protesters. The demonstrators seek more economic opportunity and an end to what they see as discrimination by the Sunni ruling family.
Al-Maliki on Wednesday met with Bahrain's foreign minister on the sidelines of the Arab summit and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari later told reporters that Bahrain would not be on the summit's agenda, a decision that appeared to be a concession by the hosts.
Offering a glimpse of Qatar's thinking on the Syrian crisis, Sheikh Hamad said it would be a "disgrace to all of us if the sacrifices of the Syrian people go to waste."
"We are faced with a difficult choice — either we stand by the Syrian people or stand by him (Assad)," he said. "It is not to be expected from the Syrians to idly stand by while the regime continues to kill its own people this way."
The Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been pushing behind the scenes for more assertive action to end the conflict. Privately, they see little benefit in the Arab League's efforts to reach a peaceful settlement and prefer instead to see a small core of nations banding together to act on their own.
Among the options they are considering are arming the Syrian rebels and creating a safe haven for the opposition along the Turkish-Syrian border to serve as a humanitarian sphere or staging ground for anti-regime forces. Such a step would require help from Turkey — the country best positioned to defend such a safe haven — but so far Ankara has seemed reluctant.
For Gulf nations, removing Assad would almost certainly break Syria's alliance with Iran, disrupting the sphere of Tehran's influence that now extends from Iraq and across Syria to the shores of the Mediterranean. Syria's Sunni majority makes up the bulk of the uprising. Assad's regime is dominated by his own Alawite sect, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam.