Iraqi Foreign Minister Takes Seat at Arab League Meeting

Iraq's foreign minister took his country's Arab League (search) seat Tuesday, a first step toward gaining broad acceptance for the interim government set up by the United States.

By simply sitting down at a circular table, Hoshyar Zebari (search) settled a two-month dispute among Arab leaders over whether to recognize the Iraqi Governing Council (search).

"The new Iraq will be different from that of Saddam Hussein," Zebari said in his first remarks to the league. "The new Iraq will be based on diversity, democracy, constitution, law and respect for human rights."

Zebari, a Kurd, emphasized the multiethnic nature of Iraq but also pledged to work with "Arab brethren," earning applause from foreign ministers gathered around the table.

"The new Iraq will stand firm against terrorism, from which it is now suffering," Zebari added, referring to the series of car bombings and shootings that have killed more than 100 civilians in recent weeks, including the U.N. envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The Arab League's decision to allow the Governing Council to occupy Iraq's seat came after a late-night, six-hour debate.

Undersecretary-General Ahmed bin Helli said Iraq's interim government would be welcome for one year, after which the league would review Iraq's progress toward forming a government.

Bin Helli called on the interim Iraqi leadership to advise the league of its plans for drafting a constitution and forming a permanent government.

In addition to welcoming Zebari, the league made two other overtures to post-Saddam Iraq on Tuesday.

It condemned Saddam's regime in connection with the discovery of mass graves of victims of his rule. The foreign ministers also began discussing how they might participate in Iraq's reconstruction.

Iraq's seat on the 22-member Arab League had been left vacant since the war. When the Governing Council was appointed in July, the league refused to recognize it, fearing that could be seen as a sign of support for the U.S.-led invasion, which was strongly opposed at street level in the Arab world.

Without Arab recognition, it would have been difficult for other nations and institutions to embrace the Governing Council. Pressure mounted on the league to change its mind.

Last month the U.N. Security Council welcomed the creation of the Governing Council as an interim government for Iraq. And Kuwait, followed by other Gulf Arab states, pushed for the league to recognize the Cabinet for Iraq that the Governing Council appointed Sept. 1.

The move enhances the Governing Council's chances of being allowed to take Iraq's seat when the U.N. General Assembly convenes in New York later this month.

The president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Abdullah Bin Hamad al-Attiyah, has been quoted as saying the oil cartel will invite the Governing Council's oil minister to its Sept. 24 meeting in Vienna if the United Nations recognizes the interim Iraqi government.

Iraq has the world's second-largest reserves of crude, but its industry is producing well below capacity owing to continuing sabotage, the effects of the war, and years of neglect under U.N. sanctions.

Washington has said a democratic government in Iraq could act as a catalyst for reform throughout the Middle East, where most countries — including most Arab League members — have been ruled for generations by royal families or unelected regimes.

The deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, James Cunningham, called Iraq's acceptance in the league "a positive step."

In Baghdad, people also largely welcomed the Arab League recognition, but many said they felt it had been granted under U.S. pressure.

"The positive stand was imposed on them by America and its hegemony. They must have had a telephone call directing them to agree," said Ibrahim Hammadi Suud, a clan chief from Fallujah.