Arab summit to back Bashir, ease divide over Iran

An Arab summit in Qatar on Monday will seek to give backing to Sudan over an international arrest warrant for its president and ease a deep rift among Arab states over how to deal with ascendant Shi'ite power Iran, reported Reuters.

Arab governments have struggled to respond to Iran's political clout since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, bringing long oppressed Shi'ite Muslims there to power.

The leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia see Iran's hand behind the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories -- Islamist groups who refuse to renounce armed action in the historic Arab conflict with Israel.

Other Arab countries with good ties to Iran, such as Syria and Qatar, back the populist view in the Arab world that the policies of Hezbollah and Hamas are legitimate responses to Israel, which rejects returning Arab lands it seized in 1967.

Israel's recent war on Gaza exposed the divisions, with Qatar hosting a crisis summit that brought together Arab leaders plus Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and leading figures from Hamas. The meeting threatened to revoke an Arab peace proposal to Israel, championed by Washington's Arab allies.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia refused to attend, saying an economic summit of Arab leaders that had already been planned before the Gaza war would suffice. Egypt is the Arab world's most populous country and Saudi Arabia is the world's biggest exporter of oil and the birthplace of Islam, making them regional heavyweights.

"The Doha summit is still a battleground between the emerging de facto alliance between Qatar, Syria and Iran, on one side, and the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians, on the other," said Ali al-Ahmed, a U.S.-based Saudi opposition figure. It was not clear if any Iranian officials would attend as observers.

Plans by Qatar and Arab League chief Amr Moussa to make the meeting a reconciliation summit were spoiled by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's surprise decision not to attend -- apparently over continuing rancor at the Gaza summit chaos.

The Egyptian and Saudi leaders pulled out of last year's summit in Damascus in protest at Syria's backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, which they believe was done at Iran's bidding.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad flew to Riyadh this month for fence-mending talks with King Abdullah ahead of the Doha summit. Observers had assumed the mini-summit also mollified Mubarak, who flew to Riyadh that day too.

Jamal Khashoggi, editor of Saudi daily al-Watan, said Mubarak's absence would not affect Saudi- and Egyptian-led attempts to get Hamas to join a unity government with the Fatah faction led by U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The others will carry out the plan developed by the mainstream countries. The only position in Doha is the Egyptian-Saudi policy. It's the only one on the table," he said.

Other points of dispute such as Syrian policy in Lebanon, which has elections soon, and Damascus' alliance with Tehran would not be on the table, he said. Analysts surmise the Riyadh summit cut a deal to prevent these issues exploding in Doha.

Saudi Arabia has been keen on a truce with Syria and Qatar and is concerned that Arab divisions allow Iran to trumpet itself as the champion of the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of mainstream Sunni Islam, fears that the United States will come to a historic agreement with Iran recognizing it as the Gulf regional power, thus creating a possible threat to Al Saud family rule.

Tensions between the Saudi authorities and minority Saudi Shi'ites bubbled to the surface last month with clashes in Medina and rare talk by a firebrand Shi'ite cleric that Shi'ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province may one day seek secession.

Goodwill feelers put out to Iran by new U.S. president Barack Obama have created further unease.

As'ad AbuKhalil, a politics professor at California State University, said Riyadh had lost faith in Washington's resolve to defend its corner in regional disputes.

"The Saudi government and the rest of the so-called 'Arab moderate camp' are fully aware that the United States is going to be too distracted with financial troubles and Iraq and Afghanistan to fight inter-Arab affairs."

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court in The Hague over atrocities in Darfur is set to present a further challenge for leaders of the 22-member Arab League, whether Bashir defies international justice and turns up or not.

After the demise of Saddam Hussein, international justice for the Sudanese leader would set another precedent for leaders accused by opposition and rights groups of ruling by repression.

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