Monday, March 21, 2005

Syria expects support at Arab summit

Regional leaders gather in Algiers amid Mideast uncertainty. The following report compiled by Lebanon's Daily Star staff Tuesday, March 22, 2005:

Syria expects Arab leaders meeting in Algiers to urge Washington to hold talks with Syrian leaders and to offer formal support against "American pressures" and sanctions, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Monday. Following an announcement that Syrian President Bashar Assad would attend the Algiers meet, Moallem said in an interview that he expects the Arab League summit opening Tuesday to endorse a draft resolution backing his country. Arab diplomats, he said, were circulating the draft ahead of the meeting.

The draft "expresses the solidarity of Arab countries with Syria in the face of American pressures as well as their rejection of the so-called Syria Accountability Act," Moallem said, referring to U.S. sanctions imposed on Syria last year.

It "also calls on the United States to engage in a constructive dialogue with Syria," he added.

Arab leaders began gathering in the Algerian capital Monday on the eve of the two-day summit, which is also expected to endorse a resolution to revive a three-year-old initiative for peace with Israel.

The summit will coincide with the 60th anniversary of the 22-member Arab League and comes at a time of continued violence, political tensions and uncertainty in the Middle East.

The U.S.-led occupation of Iraq has entered its third year as the first elected parliament in 50 years struggles to form a postwar government for the violence-riddled country.

The Palestinian-Israeli peace process is on a fragile track forward after the landmark summit last month between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during which they agreed on a truce.

Sudan has been put on notice by the UN to end the deadly civil war in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.

Relations between Iraq and its pro-Western neighbor Jordan are in crisis as both governments withdrew their envoys on Sunday following a wave of protests over the alleged involvement of a Jordanian in a deadly suicide bombing.

Globally the Arab countries are pressed by the West, and their own populations, to step up a commitment made last year to engage in a series of political, economic and social reform.

And Syria is facing huge international pressure to cease its domination over neighboring Lebanon and complete a troop withdrawal before legislative elections due there in May.

Backing from the Arab League would be a boost for Syria in the face of the mounting international pressure.

The U.S. economic sanctions were imposed because of Syria's alleged support of the insurgency in Iraq and of terrorism - both charges Syria denies.

Pressure for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has grown since the February 14 assassination of Lebanese former Premier Rafik Hariri in a massive bombing and subsequent anti-Syrian street protests in Lebanon.

Syria has denied any involvement in Hariri's murder but has pulled troops and intelligence agents back to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley and to Syria.

Moallem said neither a Syrian troop withdrawal nor UN Resolution 1559, which called for a pullout, are on the agenda for the Arab summit.

"This is a bilateral matter that has been agreed on" between Lebanon and Syria, he said.

Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud will not attend the summit, citing the political turmoil at home.

He is one of several Arab leaders who decided to skip the summit, including Jordan's King Abdullah II, whose country has proposed the revival of the peace initiative with Israel.

Earlier this month the king told Israeli television that Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would relaunch the plan to ensure that it was better received by Israelis.

The last Saudi-inspired initiative was rejected by Israel when it was first put on the table at the Beirut summit in 2002.

Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki said that "Jordan presented a document aiming at reactivating, promoting and marketing the Arab initiative for peace, by submitting a precise and concise form."

"This document was examined by the delegates who introduced a few additions in a way to please everybody and this is what was adopted," he said.

The three-point draft offers Israel the chance to normalize ties with the Arab countries in exchange for a total pullout from land it conquered in 1967 and later annexed.

It also insists that an independent Palestinian state, a solution to Palestinian refugees and their right to return are among key Arab demands.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was the first leader to arrive in Algiers Monday, pitching a tent to receive guests outside a five-star hotel just outside the Algerian capital, followed in the afternoon by outgoing Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar.

The presidents of Sudan and Mauritania, Omar Bashir and Maaouiya Ould Taya, as well as Abbas were among those who also arrived Monday. - Agencies


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