March 31st, 2008 00:55 EST
Sharp Divisions Remain at Close of Arab Summit
By Challiss McDonough
A controversial and partly boycotted Arab League summit has ended in the Syrian capital, Damascus, with no progress on the Lebanese political crisis and a summit declaration that Iraq refused to endorse. Despite the obviously sharp divisions among the delegates, Syrian officials have portrayed the meeting as a success.
The Arab summit broke no new ground on the most critical regional issues, in the absence of nearly half of the leaders of Arab League states.
Leaders say they had frank talks about the economy and other matters, but there was little in the way of progress on the issues that have most divided the Arab world and prompted a partial boycott of the meeting, including the Palestinian factional divide and the political crisis in Lebanon.
Lebanon boycotted the summit, accusing host Syria of blocking the election of a new Lebanese president, charges Syria denies. In solidarity with Lebanon, three other key Western-allied countries, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, sent only low-level representatives to Damascus.
The summit's host, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, acknowledged that there were sharp divisions among the delegates, but he argued that those differences strengthened the summit rather than weakening it.
He said the closed-door session Saturday was "outstanding" and "free of flattery." He said everyone spoke frankly and respected the discussion, despite their many differences.
In the earlier opening session, that frankness and difference of opinion was on public display in the remarks by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who excoriated his fellow leaders for their disunity and inability to act together.
The sharp divides among Arab states were evident even in the summit's declaration, which the Iraqi delegation refused to endorse.
At the final session, Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mehdi said Iraq was formally expressing its reservations about the text. He indicated that it was not what they had agreed to during the closed session.
He said it failed to pledge support for the Iraqi government in its efforts toward national reconciliation or to condemn terrorism and violence.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said the Iraqi objections would be noted in the record, but his foreign minister later said the document itself would not be amended.
The conference declaration called for Iraq to disband all militias and work to speed up the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country.
The summit made no breakthrough on the Lebanese political crisis, the main issue that prompted so many countries to scale back their representation at the meeting. But delegates emphasized their support for efforts by Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa to mediate a solution.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem rejected the allegation that the summit's success hinged on making progress on Lebanon.
He said "The issue of Lebanon was raised during the closed session, but the leaders decided it was not appropriate to discuss Lebanon during its absence."
Delegates at the summit also renewed their support for the Arab peace initiative aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they also said that the offer will not remain on the table indefinitely, and indicated they could review their strategies on peace with Israel, depending on Israel's response.
The initiative was first proposed in 2002 and re-launched last year. It offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to its borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.