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Arab Leaders Meet Amid Swirl of Regional Issues
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Arab Leaders Meet Amid Swirl of Regional Issues


Arab Leaders Meet Amid Swirl of Regional Issues
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The 19th Arab Summit opens today in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, amid a lot of diplomatic activity designed to reinvigorate the Mideast peace process. For the Arab leaders meeting in the Saudi capital support for the Palestinians is a foregone conclusion. But other issues involving Lebanon, Iran and Iraq are also competing for attention.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Riyadh.

PETER KENYON: This summit is seen by many as confirmation that Saudi Arabia is moving into the role of leader among pro-Western Arab states. The kingdom hasn't hosted a summit since 1976, but since the passing of King Fahd two years ago, King Abdullah has been slowly moving to take on a higher international profile. The summit is expected to endorse Abdullah's 2002 initiative for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It proposes normalizing relations with the Jewish state once Israel relocates to its 1967 borders and permits the return of Palestinian refugees, two provisions Israel has rejected. Western pressure is on Arab leaders to make the initiative a vehicle for negotiation, and some officials say the creation of working groups to discuss the initiative could provide a mechanism if the conditions are right.

Beyond the Isareli-Palestinian issue there are a series of crises demanding urgent attention. Saudi Arabia worked overnight to arrange a meeting today between U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on the Darfur situation. And King Abdullah met last night with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on topics that were expected to include the governmental crisis in Lebanon.

Given the proliferation of problems, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said an Arab Peace and Security Council has been ratified and it will remain as a standing body that could buster Arab peacekeeping forces if necessary. He spoke through a translator.

Mr. AMR MOUSSA (Secretary General, Arab League): (Through translator) You see what is going on in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, Somalia and others. And there are major nuclear issues. So we have absolutely to be ready security-wise.

KENYON: Many of the fears swirling around this summit have to do with Iran. Tehran is showing no signs of resolving its standoff with Britain after Iran seized 15 British soldiers in what Britain insists were Iraqi waters. Iran also faces international sanctions over its nuclear program.

Khalil al-Khalil(ph), a moderate writer who was appointed by King Abdullah to the Saudi Consultative Council, says Iran's behavior is reminding Arabs of the early days of the Shiite Islamic Revolution nearly 40 years ago.

Mr. KHALIL AL-KHALIL (Saudi Consultative Council): Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I mean, creating a lot of problems. Unfortunately, he came in the wrong time. Sorry to say this, but this is really the - that's what's happening.

KENYON: Khalil says Iran's tendency to wage its battles by proxy, assisting Shiite death squads in Iraq, for instance, or funding armed groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, is causing increased friction with Sunni-led Arab states.

Mr. KHALIL: Also, Iran has been causing some major problems in Lebanon and also Iraq. This is very, very, very clear. I mean, we can't accept that some armed groups are stronger even threatening their countries themselves, like in Hezbollah in Lebanon.

KENYON: But hard lines are being taken all over the region lately, including by the Bush administration. This week's summit is taking place as the U.S. military launches its largest show of force in the Persian Gulf since 2003, with maneuvers featuring two aircraft carrier groups backed by warplanes simulating attack maneuvers off the coast of Iran.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Riyadh.

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