CAIRO — In a milestone on its road to international legitimacy, the U.S.-appointed interim government of Iraq assumed the country's seat in the Arab League on Tuesday -- next to member states that had railed about the war against Saddam Hussein earlier this year.
The appearance of newly named Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari took place only after more than five hours of contentious closed-door negotiations, and the seating met an apparent snub from Libya's representative to the 22-member group comprising the Arabic-speaking governments of the Middle East and North Africa.
Iraq is one of the oldest and most prestigious Arab states, but Zebari was something of an anomaly for the 58-year-old organization.
First of all, he is an ethnic Kurd, not an Arab. Second, the new Iraqi Governing Council he represents was picked by an American, occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer III, to help the United States rule Iraq until a new constitution can be drafted and elections held.
Zebari made clear, however, that Iraq was turning a historic page after 35 years of harsh dictatorship under Hussein's Baath Party and was rejecting the haughty and bombastic tone often used by the former dictator's past envoys to the Arab League.
"The new Iraq will be against the culture of rejection and alienation," he said. "It will be based on democratic and constitutional principles of political pluralism, and it will put respect of human rights at the top of its priorities," he continued in fluent, if accented, Arabic.
In a black suit and wearing a large smile for the cameras, the 50-year-old Zebari was full of zest as he delivered his speech.
He earned applause when he said the new government would not split ranks with other Arab countries when it came to the conflict with Israel. He said the new Iraq would "certainly be with the Palestinian people ... and will stand shoulder to shoulder with the legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people whatever it decides."
It was Zebari's first trip abroad since being sworn in last week as foreign minister with the rest of the interim Cabinet.
The agreement to seat Zebari at the regular Arab League foreign ministers meeting was controversial here mainly because much of the Arab world opposed the war and worried about being seen as ratifying Iraq's occupation by U.S. forces. As is typical of the Arab League, however, a semblance of Arab unity was maintained, and officials announced that the decision to seat Zebari had been unanimous.
Libya's absence from Tuesday's meeting was a clear sign of its discontent with the decision. As a result, a planned official hand-over of the presidency of the session from Libya to Egypt could not take place.
Under the flags of the 22 governments in the Arab League's main hall, Zebari was courteously welcomed by members, particularly by the foreign ministers of the Persian Gulf countries who chatted with him before the session began.
Ahmed Hilli, the undersecretary of the Arab League, read the resolution that granted the Governing Council a provisional seat in Iraq's place.
The resolution also set out the league's conditions upon which the Governing Council could take the seat, namely that the council proceed with the drafting of a constitution, prepare for formal elections and strive to end the U.S. occupation as quickly as possible.
Before the meeting, the league was split between those in favor of admitting Iraq, mainly the gulf states, and those opposed, led by Syria, Lebanon and Libya. The opponents argued that seating Zebari would amount to a de facto recognition of the U.S. occupation.
Ahmed Maher, Egypt's foreign minister and currently chair of the foreign ministers' session, stressed that Zebari's seating was only a temporary step before a permanent Iraqi government was in place.
Maher said that in the end the foreign ministers were faced with two choices: either to leave the Iraqi seat empty and therefore isolate the Iraqis from Arab affairs or to take in the Governing Council as a representative until the matter is fully resolved.
In Baghdad, the decision to seat Zebari was praised by coalition officials and members of the Governing Council. A senior member -- Ibrahim Jafari, leader of Iraq's Islamic Dawa Party -- said rejoining the Arab League was "a target we have been striving for, and now it has come true." He brushed aside the league's conditions.
"This is all already understood. We never claimed to be a permanent governing council. To the contrary, we say plainly that we are provisional. We are working to get our full sovereignty and do not need to be reminded by the Arab League to do that.
"By the way," he added, "the coalition forces themselves do not consider us to be permanent, and they want their presence here ended too."
Zayan reported from Cairo and Daniszewski from Baghdad.