arab league 298.88.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Arab foreign ministers promised their support for Iraq on Wednesday in a gathering that was boycotted by the Iraqi government, angered by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's remarks that Iraqi Shi'ites are more loyal to Iran than their own country.
The Arab League called the meeting to work up ways to form a "united front" to help stabilize the country. But Mubarak's comments this weekend stoked concerns among Iraq's Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders that the Sunni-dominated league, which is based in Cairo, is biased against them.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Arab nations wanted to help the war-torn country and expressed regret that Iraq had not attended Wednesday.
"The meeting has taken place because of our unanimous belief that the situation in Iraq is so serious, that we have to sit and talk to each other about it, and it would have been much better to have an Iraqi representative here," Moussa told a press conference.
Moussa said the Arab League would open a permanent office in Iraq within the next week - a gesture to show Arab countries want to support the country.
A final statement issued by the ministers appeared aimed at trying to ease the Iraqi government's concerns that Arab nations don't recognize the new power of Shiites and Kurds since the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime in 2003.
The statement called for "preserving Iraq's membership in the Arab community" but said that requires Arab states to "keep solidarity with all of Iraq's religious and ethnic components" and "respect the will of the Iraqi people and its choices in determining its future."
Jordan is also planning to host an April 22 conference of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish religious leaders in Iraq aimed at reconciling between their communities.
"We want to stop civil and sectarian strife in Iraq. We hope the discussions will defuse the conflict to prevent civil war and to keep Iraq united," the spokesman for the conference, Abdul-Salam Abbadi, said in Amman on Wednesday. He said religious leaders from Iran, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt would also take part.
Still, the Iraqi boycott hung over Wednesday's foreign ministers meeting.
It was sparked by an interview Mubarak gave Saturday with the Arabic news network Al-Arabiya in which he said most Shi'ites in Iraq and other Middle eastern nations are more loyal to Iran than their own countries. He also said Iraq was nearly in a civil war.
The remarks outraged Shi'ites in Iraq, Gulf nations and Lebanon, and drew a sharp condemnation from Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of Egypt's largest political Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, in a statement posted on the group's Web site said, "Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds have been living together for hundreds of years ... and their loyalty will remain for Iraq only."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Baghdad told The Associated Press that no Iraqi delegation was attending Wednesday's meeting in Cairo, and the Iraqi Cabinet called on Egypt to "reconsider" the remarks.
Mubarak's comments came as Sunni-led Arab nations have expressed increasing worry over the influence of mainly Shi'ite Iran in Iraq - particularly after plans were announced for US-Iranian talks over the conflict in the country.
Mubarak met Wednesday morning with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who said the Iraqi boycott of the meeting was "not beneficial for the Iraqis."
Mubarak's spokesman, Suleiman Awwad, insisted the president was "not aiming to sow dissension among Iraqis."
"President Mubarak was talking about the Shi'ite people, expressing his concerns about the ongoing developments in Iraq, in addition to his hopes to work out the political process and maintain security for all Iraqis," Awwad said.
The Cairo meeting was attended by foreign ministers from Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Untied Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait.