BAGHDAD: Iraq’s Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers regularly demonstrate against Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, has banned protests during this month’s Arab League summit, hoping to avoid scenes that could embarrass Gulf rulers and their Baghdad hosts.
Iraq is hosting an Arab League summit on March 27-29 for the first time in more than 20 years, an event that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government touts as Baghdad’s diplomatic debut after the withdrawal of U.S. forces last year
But the summit risks drawing attention to the chilly relations between Iraq – which has a Shiite Muslim majority and a Shiite-led government – and the Gulf Arab states, which are all ruled by Sunni Muslim royal families.
Thousands of Sadr’s followers have staged demonstrations against the Gulf monarchies over Bahrain, where the Sunni ruling family invited in troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states last year while it crushed protests led by Shiites.
At the most recent demonstrations last Friday, Sadr’s followers burned Saudi and Bahraini flags and chanted slogans against both countries.
Sadr’s website said the cleric – whose movement is part of Iraq’s ruling coalition – had ordered his followers not to stage protests during the summit.
“The leader of the Sadr movement confirmed that the hosting of the Arab leaders by the Iraqi people requires us to uphold perfectly all the requirements of hospitality,” the website quoted Sadr movement spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi as saying.
“Therefore, he [Sadr] refused those who want to demonstrate during the summit on specific issues, because the real host is the Iraqi people and not the government which carries out the people’s will.”
Just how many Arab leaders will attend the summit is still unconfirmed.
Security could be an excuse for some to stay away. Iraq is sending thousands of extra troops and police to lock down Baghdad and insists the capital will be safe.
The Baghdad security operations center Wednesday announced a ban on motorcycles, bicycles and pushcarts on the capital’s streets starting March 17 to prepare for the summit. Baghdad’s airport will be shut to commercial flights for several days to make room for dignitaries’ planes.
Militants have carried out a number of attacks in recent weeks, most notably bombings and shootings on Feb. 23 that killed at least 60 people, and executions of 27 police, mostly at checkpoints, in raids on a town on March 5.
The summit’s main topic of discussion will be Syria, which is not invited because its Arab League membership is suspended. Iraq is less keen than Sunni-led Arab neighbors for forceful action against Syria’s President Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The prospect of demonstrations against the Gulf Arab states in Baghdad would be deeply embarrassing for leaders who do not tolerate dissent at home and are not used to encountering hostility when visiting other Arab countries.
Khalid al-Asadi, a lawmaker from Maliki’s nationalist Shiite-led State of Law bloc, said demonstrations were a sign of political pluralism, one of Iraq’s strengths, but that all major political blocs were committed to a successful summit.
“We should understand that Iraq is a democratic state. The government is not able to forbid any demonstration,” he said. “Our brothers, the Arabs, are starting to realize that Iraq is democratic and there is pluralism in it.”