Islamic summit to tackle Syria amid Sunni-Shi'ite tension

CAIRO Tue Feb 5, 2013 6:53pm EST

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Leaders of Islamic nations will press for a negotiated end to Syria's civil war at a summit in Cairo starting on Wednesday that thrusts Egypt's new Islamist president to center stage amid political and economic turbulence.

With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making an ice-breaking visit to Egypt after 34 years of estrangement, the two-day meeting will focus on how to stop bloodshed in Syria, where Tehran is one of President Bashar al-Assad's last allies.

A communique drafted by foreign ministers of the 56-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and seen by Reuters blames Assad's government for most of the slaughter and urges it to open talks on a political transition.

It also endorses the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and urges it to speed up the creation of a transitional government "to be ready to assume responsibility in full until the completion of the desired political change process".

The draft statement, subject to amendment at the summit, calls for a Syrian-led solution to the conflict, in which some 60,000 people have died, and rejected outside intervention.

Without mentioning Assad, it says: "We urge the Syrian regime to show wisdom and call for serious dialogue to take place between the national coalition of the Syrian revolution, opposition forces, and representatives of the Syrian government committed to political transformation in Syria and those who have not been directly involved in any form of oppression..."

SNC leader Moaz Alkhatib offered at the weekend to meet Assad's ceremonial deputy, Farouq al-Shara, for peace talks if the authorities released thousands of prisoners.

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, will seek to project his country as the leader of the Islamic world when he opens the summit seven months after becoming Egypt's first democratically elected head of state.

Egypt, the most populous Arab state, is taking over the OIC chair for three years at a time of upheaval in the Arab world and sectarian tension between the main branches of Islam. Mursi faces sustained protests at home by liberal and leftist opponents who accuse him of seeking to impose Islamist rule.

AHMADINEJAD EMBRACED, REBUKED

Mursi embraced Ahmadinejad and gave him a red-carpet airport welcome on the Iranian leader's arrival on Tuesday, but his foreign minister hastened to assure Gulf Arab states that Egypt would not sacrifice their security in opening to Tehran.

Diplomats and analysts doubt that full diplomatic relations, broken after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and Egypt's peace treaty with Israel in the same year, will be restored soon.

Underlying tensions between the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Shi'ites burst into the open on Tuesday when Ahmadinejad met Egypt's leading Muslim scholar and received a public scolding over Iran's approach to Sunni Arab nations.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, head of the 1,000-year-old seat of religious learning, urged Iran to give Iranian Sunni Muslims full rights, refrain from interfering in Gulf Arab states, and recognize Bahrain as a "sisterly Arab nation".

A statement issued by al-Azhar said Tayeb also rejected what he called the "extension of Shi'ite reach".

While Ahmadinejad flashed victory signs and struck an upbeat note after the talks, inviting Egyptian religious scholars to Iran, a top aide to Tayeb said the meeting had degenerated into an exchange of theological differences.

Syria will not take part in the Islamic summit after it was suspended from the OIC last August. The Syrian opposition said it had not received an invitation and would not be attending.

SNC spokesman Walid al-Bunni said there had been no response from the Syrian government to Alkhatib's call for talks.

Some members of the opposition coalition have called for an emergency meeting of the coalition to discuss the controversial proposal.

The moderate cleric who heads the SNC's 70-member assembly made the offer after meeting the foreign ministers of Iran and Russia, Assad's main allies, at a weekend conference in Germany.

The OIC summit is also expected to discuss fighting in Mali, where former colonial power France intervened at the request of the government last month to drive out al-Qaeda-linked insurgents who had captured the north of the West African country and were advancing towards the capital, Bamako.

(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Marwa Awad and Tom Perry; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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