AFP - Arab leaders on Thursday urged a swift and peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria at a landmark summit in Baghdad, with Iraq's premier warning that arming rival camps there would lead to a "proxy war."
Nuri al-Maliki's remarks highlighted the split in the Arab League, with hardliners Qatar and Saudi Arabia calling for Assad to step down and for rebels opposing his regime to be supplied with weapons, while others including Iraq are pushing for political reconciliation.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia were among Gulf countries that largely snubbed the summit, with the two countries only sending envoys to the first Arab meet to be held in the Iraqi capital in more than 20 years. Doha said its decision was a "message" to Iraq.
Kuwait was the only Gulf country represented by its head of state, the first such visit since Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of the emirate, and in all, just nine visiting leaders attended the summit, along with UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
Syria, which has been suspended from the pan-Arab body, was not invited.
"Based on our experience in Iraq, the option to arm either side of the conflict will lead to a regional and international proxy war in Syria," Maliki warned.
"This option will prepare the ground for foreign military intervention in Syria and so infringe on the sovereignty of a brother Arab country," he said.
Even as the summit was taking place, Syrian security forces assailed rebel strongholds across the country, a day after Assad's regime made clear it would not abide by any Arab League initiatives.
While regional officials wanted to tackle a wide variety of issues, ranging from the Arab-Israel conflict to jumpstarting the bloc's economies, the summit was firmly focused on Syria, where monitors say nearly 10,000 people have died in a year-long revolt against Assad's rule.
In his speech opening the summit, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for Syrian authorities to implement Annan's peace plan and for an end to violence ravaging the country.
"It is essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation. There is no time to waste," he said.
He added: "The conflict in Syria is on a dangerous trajectory with potential ramifications for the entire region."
Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah called on Damascus to "listen to the language of reason and wisdom and end all sorts of violence against its people," saying that "prolonging the crisis in Syria will only make it more complicated."
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, meanwhile, said that while his country was against military intervention in Syria, Damascus was only interested in "extending the conflict" so Assad's regime could "negotiate ... from a position of strength."
Arab leaders have said they will call at the summit for talks between the Syrian government and opposition based on Annan's six-point peace plan, according to a draft copy of the Baghdad Declaration obtained by AFP.
The region's leaders "denounce the violence, murder and bloodshed, and are in favour of a political solution via national dialogue," said the document, to be issued after the summit.
Iraqi premier Maliki also warned in his remarks that Al-Qaeda could benefit from Arab Spring uprisings that have toppled four long-time rulers and shaken other autocratic regimes in the region.
"The main thing we are afraid of is that Al-Qaeda will find new cracks (to operate) after it was defeated in Iraq, in Arab countries that are witnessing important developments," Maliki said, adding: "We warn that Al-Qaeda might ride the wave of the Arab uprisings."
Iraq has deployed 100,000 security forces in an effort to prevent attacks on the summit, and officials have closed down swathes of roads and mobile networks and shut down airspace.
Despite razor-tight security measures that effectively shut down Baghdad, a mortar round struck near the Iranian embassy on the outskirts of the heavily-fortified Green Zone where the the summit was being held, police said, adding that the blast did not cause any casualties but damaged the embassy.
Smoke could be seen rising from the site, and security forces members, military vehicles and firefighters raced to the scene of the blast, an AFP journalist said.
The Honein jihadist forum has included several recent messages from users threatening attacks on the Arab summit, using mortar shells as well as with suicide bombers.
A week ago, Al-Qaeda-claimed attacks nationwide killed 50 people, including three in a car bombing opposite the foreign ministry.