Iraqi foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari with journalists at Republican Palace in Baghdad ahead of this week's Arab League summit (Photo: Reuters)
Arab economy ministers opened talks in Baghdad on Tuesday ahead of a regional summit, focused on increasing tourism as the spectre of the crackdown in Syria loomed over the meetings.
Arab League officials have insisted the March 27-29 talks, a pivotal moment as Iraq bids to re-emerge as a key Middle East player, will cover a wide range of issues, but Syria, where monitors say over 9,100 people have been killed in an anti-regime uprising, remains in the limelight.
Tuesday's talks were due to concentrate on increasing tourism, tackling water security and organising regional responses to natural disasters.
But Libyan Economy Minister Ahmed Al-Koshli opened the meeting by saying: "We have to say that there is still a bleeding wound in a brother country, Syria, and I have to pray to God that he can ease the suffering and the pain in Syria, and grant them their wishes."
Arab foreign ministers are to meet on Wednesday, on the eve of the summit, the first such meeting to be held in the Iraqi capital in over 20 years and with Syria at the heart of the agenda.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said he expects a resolution to address Syria but admitted he did not think Arab leaders would call on President Bashar Al-Assad to step down.
Meanwhile, Beijing on Tuesday joined Moscow in backing Kofi Annan as the international peace envoy held talks with Chinese leaders on his proposals for ending the bloodshed in Syria.
China called on both sides in the conflict to cooperate with Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy, as fractured opposition factions met in Turkey to try to form a united front against the Damascus regime.
The fallout from other Arab uprisings -- which toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and put pressure for reform on other autocratic regimes in the region -- are also to be discussed in the three days of talks in Iraq.
Regional nations which revolted against their autocratic regimes suffered economically in 2011, the International Monetary Fund said in October, pointing to a "sizeable" decline in tourism, though energy-rich Gulf states were largely spared the protests.
The World Bank, meanwhile, has warned that the Middle East and North Africa face "increasingly frequent droughts and a looming water supply shortage."
And the Arab League deputy secretary general for economic affairs, Mohammed al-Tuwaijri, told AFP that the 22-member grouping was "thinking of setting up an alert system for disasters like earthquakes and floods."
More than 100,000 members of Iraq's forces are providing security in the capital, and Iraq has spent upwards of $500 million to refurbish major hotels, summit venues and infrastructure.
Despite the dramatically tighter measures, Al-Qaeda's front group in Iraq managed to carry out a wave of nationwide attacks on March 20 that cost 50 lives, including three people killed in a car bomb that exploded opposite the foreign ministry.
The summit was originally due to be held in Baghdad a year ago but delayed by regional turmoil resulting from the Arab Spring uprisings, as well as concerns over violence in Iraq.
As a result of the revolts, many familiar faces will be absent: Gaddafi has been killed, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over to his deputy and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled to Saudi Arabia.