Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi hosts the semiannual African Union summit this week at the remote coastal town of Sirte.  The agenda is expected to include Somalia, the war crimes indictment against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and Mr. Gadhafi's dream of creating a United States of Africa.  This summit is certain to be both contentious and controversial.

The 13th African Union summit, and the accompanying sideline events are likely to be the most poorly attended in AU history.  But that may be just what host Moammar Gadhafi wants as he tries to promote ideas and personalities that are unpopular with many of his fellow African heads of state.

His invitation to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the summit, as reported by an Iranian news agency, is just one case in point.  

At the last summit in January, when Mr. Gadhafi was sworn in for a one-year term in the rotating AU chairmanship, only 20 of the union's 52 other heads of state attended.

Many leaders were reported to have stayed away to protest the election of one of Africa's longest-serving dictators to head an organization attempting to highlight its democratic credentials.  The three previous AU chairmen had been elected leaders.

African Union expert Delphine Lecoutre, a scholar at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, says the title of African Union chairman appeals to Mr. Gadhafi's sense that he is first among equals in the continental hierarchy.

"Gadhafi has a tendency to push his ideas and to put pressure to get results.  And I think he has enjoyed being chairman of the African Union for the last six months and for him he considers this function as himself being president of Africa, which has been his dream for many years," she said.

At this summit, not only are heads of state likely to be scarce, but a lack of facilities at the summit site, plus the inability to obtain visas, are keeping away many journalists, diplomatic observers and non-governmental groups.

The Voice of America was among several news agencies unable to obtain visas to cover the event.

The theme of the summit is agriculture and food security.  But Yemisrach Kebede, director of the Center for Citizens' Participation in the African Union, says even groups invited to attend have been excluded because it proved impossible to get either a visa or a place to stay.

"That is definitely a hindrance to our work.  Also it does not give us encouragement, that host countries of AU summits are not really complying even with the AU invitations and their needs to have members of society and stakeholders present at these summits," said Kebede.

The closed-door summit business sessions will address several contentious and difficult issues.  Some, like Somalia's security crisis, seem to defy solution.  Others will pit the iron will of Mr. Gadhafi against the more moderate wing led by countries such as Tanzania, Botswana, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia.

Analyst Delphine Lecoutre, a specialist in African Union affairs, says the host is proposing creation of an African Defense Council, as another step toward his dream of a unified continent, under one flag.

"This idea has to be linked with the project Gadhafi has for many years regarding this United States of Africa.  Of a single army, of a single state for the continent.  Most probably the member states will tell him diplomatically that it is a good idea, but it is not based on current realities ... because there is ... no clear definition of what you mean by this African Defense Council," Lecoutre said.

Analysts predict a similar fate for Mr. Gadhafi's idea of transforming the AU bureaucracy from a commission to an authority with broader continental powers.  They say it will be studied and debated, and the name may be changed, but the substance will remain the same.

Another issue the Libyan leader wants to discuss in private is unified opposition to the International Criminal Court indictment of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.  The last AU summit in January called for the 30 African member states of the ICC to consider a mass withdrawal.  But the discussion ended with only a handful of countries in agreement.

Analyst Delphine Lecoutre says Mr. Gadhafi is trying to rally support by drawing a parallel between the ICC indictment and the perceived abuse by some European courts of the principle of universal jurisdiction.

"Some states want to merge the two issues, especially Sudan ... because they know that the principle of abuse of jurisdiction, the African states are supporting it, so they try to convince, they play a political card, and they want to align as many African states as possible," said Lecoutre.

In addition to Iranian President Ahmadinejad, other prominent world leaders expected to attend include Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula de Silva.  The United States delegation will be led by  Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson.