BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's top diplomat said Monday that Arab leaders meeting in Baghdad this week will not demand the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and opposition forces there need to agree on a single strategy for ending the crisis.
On the eve of an Arab League summit in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said leaders will likely agree on a "doable" solution to end the yearlong bloody conflict in Syria. He said it will be in line with earlier League proposals for Assad to peacefully transfer power to his vice president until new, open elections can be held.
The League has called for an immediate cease-fire and humanitarian assistance to be allowed into the combat zones.
"It's up to the Syrian people to determine their own future," Zebari told reporters Monday. "It's not up to other countries to dictate to the Syrians what kind of leaders they have or don't have. I don't think there will be a call on Bashar to step aside."
Syria has denounced the Arab League's criticism of the crackdown, saying those who oppose Assad are doing the bidding of the West.
Zebari also admonished Syrian opposition groups to come together with a unified plan for peace. He said opposition leaders are welcome to come to Baghdad after the three-day summit ends Thursday to discuss possible proposals. Iraq will chair the League for one year after the summit closes.
"We are trying to search for solutions on how to help the Syrian people," he said. "With all our respect to the Syrian opposition ... the opposition should unite before anything else. The opposition should join ranks and have one vision."
The mounting crisis in Syria will be a top priority at the summit, during which Iraq's leaders will try to prove that it has rejoined the Sunni-dominated Arab world after years of war, sanctions and American occupation.
But Arab leaders, long wary of the ties between Iraq's Shiite-led government and Iran, may use Syria as a way to push Baghdad into picking a side in the bitter sectarian politics dividing the Middle East.
Iraqi state TV said ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — two kingdoms that have long been hostile to Iraq — arrived in Baghdad on Monday evening. Their appearance at the summit marked a sort of watershed event for Iraq, which until recently did not have normal diplomatic relations with either nation because former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
At Monday's news conference, Zebari took pains to maintain that Iraq does not want to meddle in the politics of other nations. He said another sectarian battle that has inflamed the region over the last year — the Shiite uprising against the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain — will not even be discussed at the summit. He said Bahrain's government has not put it on the agenda.
Syria has not been invited to the summit, but Zebari said discussing the crisis there was fair game because it "is a more pressing issue daily."
At least eight heads of government have committed to attending the summit, which is costing Iraq an estimated $500 million, he said.
Zebari also said Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir would not be arrested if he attends the summit. Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges for alleged atrocities in Darfur.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report. Lara Jakes can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larajakesAP