Wearing a black suit, Zebari, an Iraqi Kurd, sat down at the league's circular table behind a little Iraqi flag, becoming Iraq's first envoy to the league since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in April. He smiled as a bevy of photographers took his picture.
The other members of the 22-member league had decided to accept Zebari hours earlier after a late night, six-hour debate. The league said the Iraqi Governing Council, the U.S.-appointed interim authority, had been granted Iraq's seat until the formation of a legitimate Iraqi government under a new constitution.
"This decision was agreed upon unanimously," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told reporters.
By winning increased legitimacy, the Governing Council helps boost U.S. plans to establish a moderate, representative Iraqi government to replace Saddam's bloody three decade-long rule.
Washington has said a new, democratically appointed government in Iraq could also act as a catalyst for reform throughout the Middle East, where most countries have been ruled for generations by royal families or regimes.
When told of the league's decision to accept the Iraqi foreign minister, the deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, James Cunningham, said: "That's a positive step."
Iraq's seat on the league had been empty since U.S. and British forces toppled Saddam. When the occupiers appointed the Governing Council in July, the league refused to recognize it, saying it would wait until Iraq had a government elected by its people.
Member governments were reluctant to embrace a U.S.-appointed body lest it appear they were endorsing the invasion of Iraq — an offensive that was strongly opposed at street level in the Arab world.
However, 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.
Zebari arrived in Cairo on Monday determined to take Iraq's seat at the meeting of league foreign ministers.
"This is our right. We are claiming our legitimate right to be here and to be represented," he told reporters shortly after his arrival. "Our message is: We're the representatives of de facto Iraqi authority."
Zebari, 50, had been among the Iraqi exiles who worked with Washington in the war to topple Saddam. He represented the Kurdistan Democratic Party in London and Washington for several years. He speaks English and Arabic fluently.
Tuesday's 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.
It could also bolster U.S. efforts to pass a new Security Council resolution granting more explicit power to the Governing Council — seen as a prerequisite to getting more multinational troops in Iraq.
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. It has not followed OPEC production guidelines since Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.