* Iraq hosting first Arab League summit in two decades
* League members divided on how to handle Syria
* League expected to endorse Annan proposal, agreed by Assad
* New U.N.-backed plan does not stipulate that Assad must go
By Mariam Karouny
BAGHDAD, March 28 Arab foreign ministers on
Wednesday called for a U.N.-backed peace plan for Syria to be
put into action after President Bashar al-Assad agreed to the
proposal that urges an end to violence but does not demand the
Syrian leader step down.
Arab leaders in Baghdad for an Arab League summit were
expected to endorse the six-point proposal from U.N.-Arab League
special envoy Kofi Annan, which seeks a ceasefire and political
dialogue in what Iraq called a "last chance" for Syria.
Annan's proposal calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons
and troops from population centres, humanitarian assistance, the
release of prisoners and free movement and access for
journalists. But it does not hinge on Assad leaving office.
Arab states appeared to soften their initial proposal
demanding that Assad step down after Russia and China vetoed
U.N. draft resolutions condemning him.
"Syria's accepting the plan is a very important step,"
Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters in Baghdad.
"This is the last chance for Syria and it must be
implemented on the ground," he said.
The Annan proposal is the latest attempt to broker an end to
more than a year of violence in Syria after Assad sent troops
into cities to try to crush rebels seeking to end his 12-year
Zebari said the League would discuss Annan's plan but would
not accept any foreign intervention in Syria.
Damascus said it would reject initiatives made at the summit
relating to Syria, according to the Lebanese TV channel
The Arab League suspended Syria last year and has in the
past called on Assad to step aside to allow talks. But members
are split over how to handle increasing violence that threatens
to inflame the region's complex ethnic and sectarian mix.
Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led the push to
isolate Syria, but other non-Gulf Arab states such as Algeria,
Egypt and Iraq's Shi'ite-led government urge more caution,
fearing that toppling Assad could spark sectarian violence.
But Baghdad has suggested the Annan plan as the best way to
reach common ground for league members.
"The priority is to end the violence in Syria," said United
Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar
Qarqash in Baghdad. "We support Annan's proposal."
Iraq is holding its first Arab League summit in two decades
and it will be the first such meeting hosted by a Shi'ite Arab
leader, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
In the build-up to the summit, Baghdad courted Sunni Arab
Gulf countries who have been wary of the rise of Iraq's Shi'ite
majority and closer ties with Iran since the fall of Sunni
dictator Saddam Hussein.
Syrian government forces continued heavy weapons fire and
their seige against opposition strongholds on Wednesday with
military action and shelling reported from the southern province
of Deraa to the northern Hama region.
The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been
killed in Syria's upheaval though Syrian authorities blame
foreign-backed terrorists for the violence and say 3,000 troops
and police have been killed.
"We hope the Syrian brothers will respond to the Arab and
international resolutions. We hope they will respond to the
voice of reason and to stop the bloodshed," said Kuwaiti Foreign
Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah.
"The situation now makes a ceasefire necessary."
ACTION NOT WORDS
Annan said on Tuesday that Syria had accepted the proposal
but he acknowledged that resolving the crisis would be a "long
difficult task" and violence continued with Assad's forces
attacking rebels taking refuge across the border in Lebanon.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also greeted Syria's
decision sceptically, saying Washington would judge Assad on his
actions not on what he said, given his record of
"over-promising, and under-delivering."
Western and Arab leaders are due to meet in Istanbul on
April 1 to discuss a political transition, and U.S., Turkish and
Arab officials are pushing the divided Syrian opposition to
unite though they remain sharply split over how to form a
While Western and Arab governments may be keen to see the
end of a 40-year Assad family dynasty, they are wary of what
kind of government might replace him.
Russia and China have so far shielded Assad from United
Nations Security Council condemnation by vetoing Western-backed
resolutions over the bloodshed. But they have backed the U.N.
statement endorsing Annan's mission.
Syria's crisis has underscored a sharp split along sectarian
lines in the Middle East, where Shi'ite power Iran and Sunni
Arab Gulf rivals are jockeying for influence. Syria is Tehran's
key ally in the Arab region.
The Assad family, from the minority Alawite sect, have ruled
over Syria for 42 years, but the conflict now threatens to blow
open the complex ethnic, religious and sectarian divides in
Syria and across the region.
*(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Louise Ireland)