Divisions mar Arab League summit

Leaders gathered for an Arab League summit in Qatar on Monday were unanimous in their appeals for Arab unity, but that message was almost lost amid high-profile disputes between member states and the sensational appearance of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir despite an international warrant for his arrest, dpa reported.

Sudan confirmed al-Bashir's attendance at Monday's summit only hours after judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of crimes against humanity on March 4.

And though Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said during a recent visit to Khartoum that he had come under pressure not to welcome al-Bashir to the summit, al-Bashir's attendance, and the sensation it would cause, had never really been in doubt.

Al-Bashir was characteristically defiant on Monday. He rejected UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's calls at the summit to rescind Sudan's order to expel 13 international aid organizations on the grounds that "relief efforts should not be politicized."

"They provided some aid," al-Bashir acknowledged. "But the price was high. ... They exceeded their mandate by signing secret agreements with the ICC to pass the court information."

He went on to accuse Israel of arming rebels in the western Sudanese region of Darfur and the United States of "threatening international peace and stability" through its control of the UN Security Council. He railed against "double-standards" in the administration of international justice.

"There should be one standard of justice, not one standard of justice for the weak and one for the strong," al-Bashir said. "Double standards can create terrorism."

In the end, the summit was marked as much by who did not attend as by who did. Despite reports that Qatar might invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or delegates from Hamas to address the summit, neither showed up, and precious little was explicitly said about either.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki obliquely referred to the conflicting alliances between Syria and Iran, on one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the other. These alliances, he said, "harm Iraq."

And, in an oblique reference to the absent Hamas delegation, al-Bashir called on Arab states not to exclude any faction from Arab efforts to reconcile rival Palestinian factions seeking to form a "national unity" government.

But perhaps the most notable absence was that of Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak, and his foreign minister, Ahmed Abul-Gheit. Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, sent Minister of State for Legal Affairs Mufid Shehab in their stead.

"Our Arab media plays an important role, whether officially or unofficially, therefore it must abide by the truth," Shehab told Arab leaders. "Egypt, the elder sister and the base of the Arab League, invites all Arab states to end their disputes."

Qatar subsidizes the satellite news channel al-Jazeera, which was sharply critical of Egyptian policy during Israel's 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip in late December and January, and Egyptian officials have bitterly complained about the channel's coverage.

The absent Egyptian president was not the only leader vying for the mantle of Arab leadership on Monday.

In perhaps the most dramatic incident of the day, Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi grabbed the microphone after Qatar's Sheikh Hamad announced that Saudi Arabia's King Abdallah would represent the Arab world at the G20 summit in England this week.

"In the past six years you have run away, proving yourself to be afraid of confrontation," Gaddafi told King Abdallah. "I'm telling you not be afraid."

At the 2003 Arab League summit, Gaddafi and King Abdallah exchanged insults after Gaddafi accused the Saudi monarch of being subservient to the United States.

"After six years, it was proven that you are the one who has lies behind you and the grave in front of you," Gaddafi continued. "You are the one who is made by Britain and protected by the United States."

"I consider the personal dispute between me and you is over, and I'm ready to visit you and to receive you. I am the king of African kings, Imam of the Muslims, leader of the nations and the rock of Arab leaders. My international standing will not allow me to lower myself by offering less."

It was perhaps a rather ambiguous call for unity, and Qatar's Sheikh Hamad hastily convened a meeting between Gaddafi and King Abdallah immediately afterward to make sure it had been properly understood.

If anything beyond rhetorical affirmations of the importance of Arab unity united the Arab leaders gathered in Doha on Monday, it was condemnation of Israel for its offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mussa set the tone on this score when he said that Israel's policies showed "arrogance and recklessness... verging on madness" and called for the prosecution of Israel's leaders for war crimes.

Arab leaders will reconvene on Tuesday morning for a final session. 

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