CAIRO Leaders of Islamic nations called for a negotiated end to Syria's civil war at a summit in Cairo that began on Wednesday, thrusting Egypt's new Islamist president to center stage amid political and economic turbulence at home.
The summit of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation opened on a day when the assassination of a leading Tunisian opposition politician highlighted the fragility of "Arab Spring" democratic revolutions in North Africa.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki canceled his trip to the Cairo meeting after Shokri Belaid, a staunch secular opponent of the moderate Islamist government, was shot dead outside his home, triggering street protests.
With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making an ice-breaking visit to Egypt after 34 years of estrangement, the two-day meeting was focusing on how to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where Tehran is one of President Bashar al-Assad's last allies.
In a keynote address, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi called on "the ruling regime" in Damascus to learn the lessons of history and not put its interests above those of the nation.
Mursi urged all OIC members to support the Syrian opposition's efforts to unite and bring about change.
Ahmadinejad earlier told Egyptian journalists there could be no military solution and he was encouraged that the Syrian government and opposition were moving towards negotiations to end the conflict in which at least 60,000 people have died.
"Fortunately in Syria at the moment matters between the two parties - the opposition and the government - are heading towards establishing the idea of dialogue and talking together," al-Ahram daily quoted him as saying.
Opposition Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib offered on Sunday to meet Assad's ceremonial deputy, Farouq al-Shara, for peace talks if the authorities released thousands of prisoners. There has been no response from Damascus so far.
A communique drafted by OIC foreign ministers and seen by Reuters blames Assad's government for most of the slaughter and urges it to open talks on a political transition.
Diplomats said Iran had objected to the wording and it might be toned down to spread responsibility more evenly.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the statement had to be adopted by consensus and would stress the need for dialogue and a political solution.
CALL TO ACCELERATE TRANSITION PROCESS
The draft text also urged the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) 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".
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..."
SPOTLIGHT ON MURSI
Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to project his country as the leader of the Islamic world in his speech seven months after becoming Egypt's first democratically elected head of state.
He told the assembled kings, presidents and prime ministers that Egypt's "glorious January 25 revolution" that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 "forms the cornerstone in the launching of this nation to new horizons of progress".
Egypt is taking over the OIC chair at a time of upheaval in the Arab world and sectarian tension between the main branches of Islam. Mursi is also grappling with sustained protests at home by liberal and leftist opponents who accuse him of seeking to impose Islamist rule.
On Tuesday, he embraced Ahmadinejad and gave him a red-carpet airport welcome on the Iranian leader's arrival, but his foreign minister hastened to assure Gulf Arab states that Egypt would not sacrifice their security in opening to Tehran.
Syria was not present at the Islamic summit after being suspended from the OIC last August. The Syrian opposition said it had not received an invitation and would not be attending.
Some members of the opposition coalition have called for an emergency meeting of the coalition to discuss Alkhatib's proposal for talks.
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.
On Syria's battlegrounds, heavy fighting erupted in Damascus on Wednesday as rebels launched an offensive, breaking a lull in the conflict, opposition activists said.
Assad's forces also came under attack in the east of Syria where a suicide car bomb struck a military intelligence compound in the city of Palmyra, causing dozens of casualties.
The OIC summit also discussed fighting in Mali. Mursi praised former colonial power France for intervening militarily in support 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 Tom Perry, Marwa Awad and Asma Alsharif in Cairo, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Tarek Amara in Tunis; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Mark Heinrich)