An African Union summit has become mired in disagreement over a move by the host, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, to transform the AU bureaucracy into a continental authority with broad powers.  Many of the union's heavyweights are openly resisting the Gadhafi plan.

This summit at the Libyan town of Sirte, Moammar Gadhafi's birthplace, is living up to expectations.  AU diplomats and observers had predicted it would be more contentious and potentially divisive than the one last February, during which Mr. Gadhafi was elected to a one-year term as AU chairman.

That summit in Addis Ababa featured sessions that carried on into the wee hours of the morning, as Mr. Gadhafi tried unsuccessfully to persuade the majority to accept his long-held dream of a United States of Africa.

The disagreement resumed even before the other leaders arrived in Sirte, as the Libyan leader dominated pre-summit meetings of foreign ministers, reportedly insisting that his proposals be accepted.  Diplomats, who asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said the meeting broke down at one point, with ministers complaining Mr. Gadhafi's attendance was out of order.  It ended in a stalemate.

African Union expert and scholar Delphine Lecoutre of Addis Ababa University's school of Ethiopian affairs said many of Mr. Gadhafi's fellow heads of state are trying diplomatically to handle the erratic Libyan leader while demanding that he follow rules laid out in the AU Constitutive Act.

"But Gadhafi cannot change all the rules.  And until now, the African Union has rules in text, in the Constitutive Act, rules of procedures.  And even if the Brother Leader told us at the last summit in January that he is not very aware of the rules, and he will manage the way he thinks he could manage, the member states could not be satisfied with such an answer, and they will push the rules themselves," she asid.

Several of the wealthiest and most influential AU member states are said to be especially concerned about elements of Mr. Gadhafi's plan that would give the continental bureaucracy powers over foreign policy, defense and trade.  

While there is general agreement that a European-style continental authority is a good idea for the future; a group including Nigeria, South Africa, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia favors a gradual transformation over decades.

AU expert Delphine Lecoutre said try as he might, Mr. Gadhafi is not likely to achieve much more than cosmetic changes in the AU structure, such as transforming the bureaucracy into an authority, with senior officials called secretaries instead of commissioners.

"More or less he has been defeated because it is more a compromise of other heads of state.  They do not want to tell frankly to the Brother Leader that they can not go so far in terms of ideas regarding this new structure." Lecoutre said.  "So they try to accommodate him and especially if you look at the structure and size of the authority, you do not have [much] change.  The change is basically a change of name, commissioners would be secretaries, but regarding the portfolios of the secretaries, they are the current ones, and you just add some other portfolios to them.  So there is not really a change," she added.

Several diplomats have privately expressed irritation at the amount of summit time taken up by discussions of the so-called United States of Africa concept.  Only 21 heads of state showed up for the last summit in Addis Ababa, when Mr. Gadhafi was elected chairman.  Twenty-seven are attending this time, suggesting that both pro-and anti-union factions are massing support for a showdown.