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Arab Ministers Meet Ahead of Damascus Summit

  • Aya Batrawy

Arab ministers are meeting in Cairo on a number of regional issues, including whether heads of state will attend an Arab summit in Syria at the end of March. There is ongoing friction about Lebanese participation at the summit. Syria has yet to extend formal invitations to Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Aya Batrawy has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Syria is to play host this month to an Arab summit in Damascus. The likelihood that the meeting will be attended by the heads of states of all 22 Arab League countries remains in question since Syria has not officially invited Lebanese and Saudi leaders. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday Syria will invite Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to the summit.

Lebanon, which has been without a president since November, could be represented at the meeting by the western-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a strong critic of Syria. Mr. Siniora's presence in Damascus would be uncomfortable for Syrian officials.

Foreign Minister Moallem said Syria will accept whoever Lebanon chooses to attend the meeting, if a president is not elected by then.

Moallem also said he is confident that there will be a larger turnout at the summit than at other Arab summits.

News reports have said Saudi Arabia, a strong supporter of the Siniora government, may boycott the conference unless Lebanon's crisis is resolved ahead of time and a new president has been elected. Egypt has threatened to boycott the meeting.

The vote in Lebanon's parliament for a new president has been postponed 15 times because the rival blocs, the Hezbollah-led opposition and Mr. Siniora's anti-Syria coalition, have failed to agree on the shape of a new government.

If Saudi Arabia does not attend the Damascus summit other Gulf States may also decline, says political analyst Mohamed el-Sayed Said of the aI-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, but he says it is up to Syria to avoid a fiasco.

"The conference can make it if it does base its decision on consensus. Certainly that means major concessions on the part of Syria," said Said. "There is some chance that the conference will be held and attended by most of the Arab states including Saudi Arabia."

Syria's relationship with many of its Arab neighbors deteriorated following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria has said it had nothing to do with the killing.

Although Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon that year, it has been accused by Arab states and the West of continuing to meddle in Lebanese affairs.

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