Arab Leaders Flock to Amman Summit

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Arab Leaders Flock to Amman Summit
Arab leaders have gathered in Amman for a significant Arab League summit that appears set to follow a familiar script, taking a united stand against Israel, but not quite trusting the Palestinians, while remaining divided on regional troublemaker Iraq.

One after another, Arab heads of state landed in Amman on Monday and were greeted warmly on a red carpet by Jordan's King Abdullah II, host of the first regular Arab League summit in 10 years. They were joined on the tarmac today by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, a guest of the summit. Meanwhile, Arab foreign ministers and other delegates were still huddled back in town, struggling behind closed doors to smooth over differences on the final points of a draft communiqué before the summit opens Tuesday. The communiqué omitted reference to the Iraq issue, the only unresolved point, although some noted progress had been made on the summit's eve.

The Arab League has been unable to hold regular summits since its members split over Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which set off the 1991 Gulf War. Arab foreign ministers agreed last October to try to resume annual meetings, starting with this Amman meeting. While in the Jordanian capital over the next couple days, Arab rulers plan to discuss the UN sanctions against Iraq and Baghdad's quarrel with Kuwait, as well as Palestinian-Israeli violence and stalled Middle East peacemaking.

The pre-summit wrangling was dominated by Iraqi objections to demands by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that included calls for an Iraqi apology for the 1991 invasion and the return of prisoners of war Kuwait says Baghdad still holds. An Arab diplomat involved in the pre-summit talks said Iraq appears close to accepting a draft four-point proposal that would call for Iraq as well as Kuwait to respect regional security and each others' sovereignty. It would also call for the lifting of commercial sanctions against Iraq, swift discussion of the status of POWs, and resumption of civilian flights to Baghdad. It reportedly also "indirectly" condemns the US-British "no-fly zones" intended to bar Iraqi military aircraft from targeting Kurds in the north and Shi'ite Muslims in the south.

The other main issue addressed in preliminary diplomatic meetings was pan-Arab support for the Palestinian uprising against Israel, and particularly the distribution of economic aid to the floundering and corruption-riddled Palestinian Authority. PA chairman Yasser Arafat has even scheduled a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad for tomorrow, in a move to mend ties after decades of hostility between Arafat and Assad's father Hafez, who died last June.

Debate centered on how to disburse $1 billion in Arab financial aid pledged, but not distributed, to the Palestinians at an emergency League summit last October. Arab donor states and Saudi banks through which the money was routed demanded that Arafat maintain transparency in the transfer and distribution of the funds, but he resisted, thereby freezing the outlays. Late last week, one PA official called the lack and delay of funding a "mark of Cain" that Arab regimes must "wear with shame."

According to REUTERS, the draft summit resolutions "strongly condemn" Israeli measures to quell the Palestinian violence and pledge full support, including financial aid, for the Palestinians. The foreign ministers are expected to ask the summit to approve the transfer of $40 million a month for six months to the PA, which claims it is suffering a cash crunch due to the uprising and Israeli economic and travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Jordan toned down a Syrian demand to revive a full-scale Arab boycott of Israel. The draft resolutions avoided the question by asking the boycott office in Damascus to "look at ways to reactivate" the campaign, and called for a freeze on Arab economic ties with Israel to be maintained.

In the face of the growing unity among Arab League members, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been trying to lessen tensions with Egypt before the summit begins, in order to guarantee Egypt's moderating role in the conference. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned late last week of a "reassessment" of relations with Israel if reports proved true that Sharon asked US leaders to cut military aid to Cairo during his recent visit to Washington. Both Sharon and Bush Administration officials denied they had even discussed the issue, though Jerusalem did acknowledge some members of the US Congress brought it up out of concern for Egypt's poor human rights record and unnecessary arms build-up, among other reasons.

Working quickly to mend fences, Sharon told his Cabinet on Sunday that he considers Egypt important for regional peace, and that he is interested in preserving and upgrading the peace with Egypt. Mubarak accepted Sharon's denials on the military aid question, but blasted Israel nonetheless for mistakenly believing "the illusion that might is right." He cautioned in interviews published today that violence between Israel and Palestinians could spill over into other countries, triggering "violence and terrorism" abroad. "Attempts to suppress the Palestinian people by military power would reflect negatively on the entire region," Mubarak charged.

Across Egypt on Sunday, thousands of university students demonstrated against Israel and urged the Arab summit to forge a united stance in support of the Palestinians. And in Damascus, eight radical Palestinian groups issued a statement asking Arab states to halt all normal relations with Israel.

Meanwhile, at a meeting in Ramallah, Arafat accused the Israeli government and military of preparing to take over Palestinian ruled areas and assassinate PA leaders in a coming assault. At the same time, Fatah militia leader Marwan Barghouti said Palestinians would escalate intifada activities in the coming days of the Arab League summit.

Finally, six Israeli journalists in Amman covering the opening of the Arab League summit left the country and returned to Israel on Monday morning after Jordanian security officials warned them that, based on intelligence information, their lives were in danger.

Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

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