- Associated Press - Thursday, March 29, 2012

BAGHDAD Fewer than half the leaders of the Arab world showed up at an Arab summit in Baghdad on Thursday, a snub to the Iraqi government that reflects how trenchantly the sectarian division between Sunnis and Shiites and the rivalry with neighboring Iran define the Middle East’s politics today.

As the summit opened in a former palace of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the powerful Sunni monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other Gulf nations and Jordan and Morocco were absent.

The only ruler from the Gulf to attend was the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, whose attendance was significant because Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 and occupied it for nearly seven months before a U.S.-led coalition drove his army out.

Relations between the two neighbors have been fraught with tension since, even after Saddam’s 2003 ouster. Sheik Al Sabah’s attendance should cap recent improvement in relations.

One reason for the absences was the Gulf leaders’ deep distrust of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, which they believe is a proxy for Iran.

In unusually direct remarks, Qatar’s prime minister said the lower representation was to protest what he called the Baghdad government’s marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority.

Another reason was the bitterness surrounding the main issue hanging over the summit - the conflict in Syria - on which Iraq has taken an ambivalent stand.

Arab leaders in the Gulf want tough action to stop the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on the opposition, with their eye on ultimately bringing down President Bashar Assad. If Mr. Assad goes, they hope, they can break Sunni-majority Syria out of its alliance with Iran.

However, Iraq, which also has close ties to Iran, has resisted any strong measures by the Arab League on Syria, with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari saying he was opposed to foreign intervention there.

The summit is the first held by the 22-member league since the Arab Spring revolts began sweeping through the region more than a year ago. The turmoil forced the cancellation of last year’s summit.

Since then, four perennials of the summit have been swept from the scene - Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

The new leaders of Tunisia and Libya were among the 10 heads of state who attended, but Egypt and Yemen sent lower-level figures, a reflection of the domestic turmoil still roiling those nations.

Iraq had hoped that hosting the summit - its first Arab summit since 1990 - would herald its return to the Arab fold after two decades of isolation.

But the absences and the ability of militants to launch attacks despite a massive security operation - a mortar hit an area not far from the summit’s venue as the meeting started - suggest that Iraq still may have some way to go before it could fully return to normalcy and reintegrate into the Arab world.