Arab summit opens in Khartoum

Key issues include Iraq's future, Iran's nukes, Palestinians' government.

abbas arab summit (photo credit: )
abbas arab summit
(photo credit: )
Arab leaders opened their annual summit Tuesday with generous praise for January's Palestinian elections and denunciations of Israel and the West for threatening to cut off aid in response to the landslide victory of the militant Hamas group. "We say no to robbing the Palestinian people of their democratic choice, no to punishing the Palestinian people for exercising their right to choose who rules, and no to succumbing to Israel's violations of all the promises it made," Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the summit's host, said emphatically, winning a round of applause from the audience of heads of state and delegates. Hamas' election victory has raised fears of a halt in the Mideast peace process, with the United States and European Union threatening to stop direct financial aid vital to keeping the Palestinian Authority running. A resolution to be adopted by the summit will pledge continued Arab funding the Palestinian Authority. "We call on the international community to respect this people and their choices...which came through free and transparent elections praised by international observers," said al-Bashir, an army officer who has been in power since leading a 1989 military that toppled a democratically elected government. Al-Bashir also called on the international community to push Israel to respond to international resolutions and stop "state terrorism" against the Palestinians. The annual summit of the 22-member Arab League is contending with complex issues involving Iraq's future, Iran's dispute with the West over its nuclear program and how to deal with a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories. Sudan is also hoping to win Arab backing on its position on the Darfur conflict, where it is resisting Western pressure - and a UN resolution - for the African Union peacekeeping force to be replaced later this year by a much bigger UN force. He said he hoped the Darfur conflict would end by the time the mandate of the African peacekeeping force there ends in September. "We hope that during this period we can put Darfur problems behind us for ever and that the African Union forces with the experience gained are able to carry out their task without outside interference," al-Bashir said. Up to 10 Arab heads of state skipped the Khartoum summit, raising concerns of a lackluster summit in a year where many had hoped to see serious efforts at dealing with regional troubles. Although regional heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not send their heads of state, Jordan's King Abdullah II arrived shortly before the meeting began, countering earlier reports that he would also not attend. Some of the absent leaders cited security concerns, others have political differences with the Sudanese government. The United States government had also asked friendly Arab leaders to stay away to prevent a show of support for the Sudanese government, under international pressure to allow UN peacekeepers in Sudan's wartorn Darfur region, said several Arab diplomats from countries whose heads of state were absent. In light of the many no-shows, the summit was likely to be shortened to one day instead of two, diplomats said. Hours before leaders arrived at the summit's venue - a conference center at the convergence of the White and Blue Nile rivers - armed Sudanese soldiers in blue camouflage sealed off surrounding streets and set up checkpoints. Dogs sniffed bags and metal detectors and scanners were used to screen delegates, journalists and organizers coming into the complex. The gathering opened with a recitation from the Quran, Islam's holy book, and an address by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, host of last year's summit. In his address, Bouteflika rejected calls to isolate a Hamas-led government, saying such attempts would amount to the "punishment of the entire Palestinian people." He also called on Iraqis to close ranks to avoid a sectarian conflict pitting the country's Shiite majority against the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority. Iraq's neighbors, he said, should "honestly cooperate with the Iraqi people to preserve the country's integrity and unity." Another resolution to be approved at the summit urges Arab countries to send ambassadors to Iraq, a key demand of the embattled Baghdad government, though it gave no timeframe. The US State Department urged Arab leaders to "be as supportive as possible of the new Iraqi government" by sending ambassadors and economic assistance to Baghdad. It is a resolution on Darfur that caused late-night wrangling Monday. Sudan had come up with a version that was unacceptable to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, diplomats said, and it took ministers four hours to alter the statement to offer only vague support for Sudan. The resolution also does not commit Arabs to any financing of African Union forces, as the United States had hoped for. Al-Bashir used his opening address to renew his call for support and funding. "We appeal to all the Arab countries to provide the required funding, and even increase it, in order for these troops to carry out their duties," he said. More than 180,000 people have been killed in three years of fighting in Darfur and more than 2 million people have been displaced. Following the opening session, the leaders will spend the day discussing the agenda and the draft resolutions prepared by their ministers earlier this week. One tricky issue is likely to come up early on the agenda. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, whose term expires in May, was expected to be nominated for a second term. But the leading Sudanese daily Al-Sahafa reported that Yemen was putting forward its own candidate at the last minute, a move that would highlight the lack of consensus among Arab leaders.