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Syria, Sunni-Shiite split arise at Muslim summit

Wednesday - 2/6/2013, 2:18pm  ET

An Egyptian presidential guard soldier stands in front of flags of participating countries at the 12th summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. The summit aims to address a wide range of issues including, Palestinian statehood, the Syrian crisis, poverty in the Islamic world and conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- An Islamic summit that opened in Egypt on Wednesday lay bare the multiple divisions within the Muslim and Arab worlds, with conflicting approaches to the Syrian civil war exposing the Sunni-Shiite sectarian fault lines that have torn the region for years.

Egypt's Islamist leader sharply criticized President Bashar Assad's embattled regime in his address to the two-day summit, though he hedged his comments by only making an indirect call for the Syrian leader to step down.

The Syrian government "must read history and grasp its immortal message: It is the people who remain and those who put their personal interests before those of their people will inevitably go," Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said.

The conflict in Syria has been deeply divisive in the Middle East, pitting a largely Sunni opposition against a regime dominated by Assad's Alawite minority -- a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sunni nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have thrown their weight behind the rebels, while Shiite heavyweight Iran is Damascus' closest regional ally.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-led government has been ambivalent about the Syrian conflict, offered a more cautious approach. In power for nearly seven years, al-Maliki is believed to be worried that his grip on power could weaken if the Sunni majority in neighboring Syria succeeds in overthrowing Assad and a new Sunni leadership takes power in Damascus. Al-Maliki faces a wave of protests against his rule in Iraq's Sunni provinces and has had to fight Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaida for most of his time in office.

"Syria suffers from violence, killings and sabotage," he said and called on the summit to "find an exit and peaceful solution for its conflict." He called on member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the summit's organizer, to unite against terror, suggesting that he, like the regime in Damascus, views the rebels fighting the Syrian regime as terrorists.

At least 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, where the rebel side is heavy on Muslim militants, many of them linked to al-Qaida. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced, and many of them have found refuge in neighboring nations Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Later on Wednesday, another Syria-related event reflected the divisive impact of the conflict there.

Saudi Arabia stayed out of a gathering of Morsi and the presidents of Turkey and Iran on the sidelines of the summit to discuss Syria. Saudi Crown Prince Salman, who was heading his country's delegation to the OIC summit, left Egypt just before the mini-summit was held.

Morsi has been trying to form a working group of the four countries to address the Syria crisis. But Saudi Arabia has only attended the "quartet's" first meeting several months ago.

Egyptian officials insist that the Saudis have not pulled out, and an Egyptian presidential spokesman said Salman left because of other, personal engagements. The Saudi foreign minister stayed to attend the OIC summit.

But it is widely suspected that the kingdom has quit the group because they could not see the point of working with Iran, Assad's most ardent backer, to resolve the conflict there.

Morsi has worked for a thaw in ties with Iran, with which Egypt cut ties following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Egyptian leader gave a warm welcome Tuesday to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upon his arrival in Cairo for the summit.

In a sign of Tehran's hopes for better relations, Ahmadinejad offered to provide Egypt with "a big credit line" to help salvage the country's faltering economy. "If the two peoples cooperate and join forces, they can become an important element," Ahmadinejad told the state-run Al-Ahram daily.

Egypt's government had no immediate reaction to Ahmadinejad's offer

Gulf Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made little effort to hide their distaste for Egypt's new Islamist regime, mostly out of fear they will export Egypt's revolution to their countries. They have also viewed with some discomfort the warming between Cairo and Iran, their longtime foe across the shallow waters of the Gulf.

The UAE, which has a long-running dispute with Iran over ownership of three strategic Gulf islands, has arrested Egyptian expatriates for their alleged links to Morsi's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and has given refuge to former Egyptian regime members. Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak maintained close ties to the UAE for most of his 29 years in power.

Morsi and the Brotherhood have sought to ease Gulf concerns, stressing that the security of the Gulf nations is directly linked to Cairo's own. Egypt has traditionally relied upon the oil-rich nations for financial aid to its faltering economy.

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