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Iraq spent lavishly on postponed Arab summit

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 5 May 2011 06:51 PM
Author: Reuters
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* Iraq spent ${esc.dollar}450 million on sprucing up

* Arab League summit delayed to March 2012

By Khalid al-Ansary

BAGHDAD, May 5 (Reuters) - Iraq spent ${esc.dollar}450 million planting palm trees along highways, re-paving roads and restoring a palace of former dictator Saddam Hussein to host a regional summit that has now been delayed to next year.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said on Thursday the summit had been postponed to March 2012 after being put off twice this year amid regional turmoil and animosity towards Iraq by some Gulf Arab states after it criticised Bahrain's crackdown on Shi'ite protesters.

Revamping Iraq's capital, which included the refurbishment of six of Baghdad's main hotels and repaving the city's airport road -- one of the most dangerous to travel on at the height of the war -- has cost the investment-starved country ${esc.dollar}450 million, according to Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.

A successful summit could restore Iraq's place among its neighbours after years of war and economic isolation and might reassure Sunni-dominated governments concerned about the rise of Iraq's Shi'ite majority and the influence of Shi'ite Iran.

Iraqi Shi'ites, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, voiced disapproval over the movement of forces from Sunni Arab states into Bahrain to help its Sunni royal family quash pro-democracy rallies by majority Shi'ites.

Bahrain's foreign minister has said the criticism led Gulf Arab states to ask the league to cancel this year's summit.

"This was the direct cause and on the back of it the summit was postponed," Iraqi political analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie said. "The brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council must understand that the political system in Iraq is democratic and the politician ... can't just ignore the voters' views."

MASS DEMONSTRATIONS

Rising frustrations over a lack of water, electricity, food rations and jobs have sparked popular protests in Iraq, although unlike their regional counterparts, Iraqis have not sought to remove their democratically elected government.

Many are questioning the amount of money spent on a regional summit expected to be attended by heads of state.

"What will we get from the summit? What is the benefit? We, the people, don't understand the language of politics, we seek benefit," said Ihsan Mohammed, a Baghdad barber.

"They should have spent it on the electricity sector, which has suffered the most damage. I am 60 years old and in my life, I haven't witnessed any benefit coming from Arab summits."

Ali al-Moussawi, Maliki's media adviser, said he was confident the money had not gone to waste.

"It is impossible to ignore our hotels and leave them in such a condition," Moussawi said.

Around ${esc.dollar}40 million of the allocated ${esc.dollar}450 million was used to renovate Saddam's Republican Palace, used as a U.S. embassy and military headquarters after the 2003 invasion.

The 60-year-old palace, expected to house Arab leaders, has been kitted out with giant chandeliers and paintings of Babylon. Date palms adorn the garden, which also has a swimming pool.

"We had to work around the clock. Everything needed to be repaired, redone," Osman Mimarsinanoglu, chairman of the Turkish Gorkem company told Reuters before the postponement.

The summit may also be a test of readiness for Iraq's army and police. U.S. troops are scheduled to leave by year-end.

"It is a major challenge for the Iraqi government. It shows that Iraq is back to play its role in the Arab world," Zebari said. (Editing by Serena Chaudhry)

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