- - Monday, February 14, 2011

CAIRO | Arab leaders on Monday called an annual summit for March 29 after popular uprisings transformed the political landscape of the volatile but long autocratic region.

Heads of state are to meet in Baghdad for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, in defiance of threats by Islamist insurgents to attack anyone taking part.

The call for the Arab League summit came as protests continued in some Arab nations, while others tried to deal with the aftermath of earlier unrest.

“The Arab League summit will be held in Baghdad on March 29,” Iraq’s ambassador to the Arab League, Qais al-Azzawi, told reporters on the sidelines of a Cairo meeting of the envoys of the 22-member bloc.

“The conditions are ready for holding the conference on that day. We trust that this will be one of the most successful Arab summits,” said Ali Musawi, spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The summit will be the first since two Arab presidents were toppled in popular uprisings amid warnings by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa of “unprecedented anger” on the Arab street.

Tunisian protests sparked by the self-immolation of a vegetable seller forced strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on Jan. 14 after 23 years in power.

Inspired by events in Tunisia, pro-democracy groups launched a call for protests in Egypt, and their campaign ended the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Last month, insurgents gunned down two Iraqi foreign ministry officials, after the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam posted threats against the Arab League summit in a statement on a jihadist website.

“The meeting of these tyrants in Baghdad forms part of American plans to normalize relations with the occupation government [in Iraq],” it read.

“Everyone must know Iraq is under the occupation of the crusaders and that only the nonbelievers can legitimize the impious government.”

Abduljabbar Abdullah Mukhtar and Jamal Sattar Hussein were fatally shot by gunmen using pistols with silencers on Jan. 26, two days after the killing of Duraid Ismail, an employee of the national security ministry.

Egypt’s new military rulers have vowed to pave the way for a free democratic society, which if implemented, could jolt the region, where people have long suffered from political repression, poor human rights and economic hardships.

In January, Mr. Moussa warned leaders who met in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik for an economic summit of “unprecedented anger” on the Arab street.

That anger spilled onto the streets of Bahrain and Yemen on Monday.

Bahrain’s security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets Monday at thousands of anti-government protesters, heeding calls to unite in a major rally and bring the Arab reform wave to the Gulf for the first time.

The punishing tactics by authorities underscore the sharply rising tensions in the tiny island kingdom, a strategic Western ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

In Yemen, protesters held a fourth day of demonstrations, demanding political reforms and the ouster of pro-American President Ali Abdullah Saleh. More than 1,000 university students, civil rights activists and lawmakers marched in the capital, Sanaa.

“A revolution of free opinion. A revolution of freedom. We who decide,” shouted the protesters.

Meanwhile, Algeria lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency, as Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci dismissed concerns that weekend protests could escalate into massive demands for reform.

A state of emergency has been in force in Algeria since 1992 and the government has come under pressure from opponents, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, to ditch emergency laws.

Several hundred protesters took to the streets in Algiers on Saturday and opposition groups said they would demonstrate every weekend until the government is changed.

Tunisia is still dealing with the aftermath of last month’s demonstrations, as tens of thousands of Tunisians continue fleeing to Europe to escape the instability in the North African nation.

Government officials met with chief diplomats of the European Union and Italy, the destination for the majority of the Tunisian refugees.

Around 5,000 asylum seekers have landed on the remote Italian island of Lampedusa in the past week.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni triggered a diplomatic row over the weekend by calling for Italian police to be sent to Tunisia to tackle the problem at its root.

The Tunis government called his comments “unacceptable.”

In a statement issued Monday, Tunisia said it is willing to “cooperate with fraternal countries in order to identify solutions to this phenomenon.”

From combined dispatches