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.
But reflecting the rift between 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 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 underway, Syrian security forces assailed rebel strongholds across the country, a day after 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, monitors said.
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, Ban called for Syrian authorities to implement Annan's peace plan and for an end to violence ravaging the country.
He added: "The conflict in Syria is on a dangerous trajectory with potential ramifications for the entire region."
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 that "prolonging the crisis in Syria will only make it more complicated."
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, meanwhile, said that while his country was against military intervention in Syria, Damascus was only interested in "extending the conflict" so 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 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.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday that the summit would steer clear of strong moves advocated by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to resolve the Syria crisis, and that a ministerial meeting on Wednesday did not discuss arming the country's rebels.
The two issues have pitted countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have called for Assad to leave and advocated sending arms to rebel groups against those pushing for political reconciliation, such as Iraq.
Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said in an interview with Al-Jazeera that he would have wanted the level of representation to be higher "but we will sit with them in the future and talk." He did not elaborate.
Among the visiting leaders was the emir of Kuwait, who was on the first visit by a Kuwaiti head of state in more than 20 years.
Iraq has deployed 100,000 security forces in an effort to prevent attacks on the summit, and officials have closed down swathes of roads and mobile networks and shut down airspace.
Despite razor-tight security measures that effectively shut down Baghdad, a mortar round struck near the Iranian embassy on the outskirts of the heavily-fortified Green Zone where the the summit was being opened, a police official said, adding that the blast did not cause any casualties but damaged the embassy.
Smoke could be seen rising from the site, and security forces members, military vehicles and firefighters raced to the scene of the blast, an AFP journalist said.
The Honein jihadist forum has included several recent messages from users threatening attacks on the Arab summit, using mortar shells as well as with suicide bombers.
A week ago, Al-Qaeda-claimed attacks nationwide killed 50 people, including three in a car bombing opposite the foreign ministry.
Source: AFP Global Edition