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Arab League Summit Expected To Back Sudan's President

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir at the opening of the Arab League summit
(RFE/RL) -- An Arab League summit under way in Qatar is being attended by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes in Darfur.

But Bashir is apparently unconcerned about being detained for extradition while in Qatar. In fact, he’s likely to steal the show.

Bashir arrived in Doha on March 29 after visiting Egypt, Eritrea, and Libya in the weeks following his indictment by the ICC.

Diplomats in the Qatari capital say Saudi Arabia has pressed the 22-nation summit to show strong support for the Sudanese president.

Qatar, which hosts a U.S. military base, says it faced "unspecified pressure" not to receive Bashir. Yet the tiny Persian Gulf state, an emerging partner of Iran, reiterated its invitation for Bashir to attend, Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassim told a news conference on March 28.

"There were no disagreements on the Sudan issue; on the contrary, we had clear Arab agreement," Bin Jassim said. "This was reflected in the statement dealing with Sudan. There is very clear Arab support for Sudan, because this issue is important to national Arab security."

The execution of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq set a troubling precedent for Arab leaders, many of whom are accused by rights groups of leading repressive regimes. Analysts say holding Sudan's leader to account before an international court would set another difficult precedent.

A coalition of human rights groups from across the Middle East urged Arab nations not to protect Sudanese officials accused of atrocities in Darfur. The Arab Coalition for Darfur did not name Bashir, but said there should be no immunity for those accused of war crimes in the Sudanese region.

Analysts expect Bashir to give a rousing speech to the summit.

Mustafa Ismael, a political adviser to Bashir, told reporters in Doha on March 30 that Khartoum expects strong support at the summit for the Sudanese leader.

"We expect that this summit will reflect the bilateral positions by Arab taking a strong resolution to meet the expectation of the Arab street in support of Sudan and to refuse the ICC decision Sudan in resolving the Darfur conflict,” Ismael said.

No Spotlight On Qatar

Meanwhile, Bashir's presence in Doha threatens to overshadow Qatari hopes of showcasing the Gulf nation as a leading regional player.

Qatar has emerged as a major natural gas power in the Gulf, and has developed close ties with Iran, despite pressure from Sunni Arab states and the United States to keep its distance from the region’s Shi’ite power.

Arab leaders are expected to discuss their approach toward Iran, whose regional influence is seen as rising.

Arab governments have struggled to respond to Iran's rising political clout. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which back a peace proposal with Israel, see Iranian support behind Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Arab countries with good ties to Iran, such as Syria and Qatar, say the policies of Hizballah and Hamas are legitimate responses to Israel.

That rift is on the agenda, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's surprise decision not to attend the summit could spoil plans to reach a compromise.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, speaking in Doha, reiterated the pro-Iranian line. He said countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which launched a peace plan for the region in 2002, do not have a real partner in Israel.

with agency reports