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King Abdullah offers grim depiction of region

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, one of the United States' closest Arab allies, called the American presence in Iraq "illegitimate" on Wednesday as he opened a two-day summit here of the Arab League.

The characterization came amid growing signs that Saudi Arabia is distancing itself from Bush administration policies in the region.

The octogenarian monarch, swathed in traditional robes and speaking in a pained voice, also characterized as "unjust" the U.S.-led financial embargo of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and urged its end in the wake of an agreement between Hamas and the moderate Fatah party to form a unity government.

Abdullah also criticized Arab leaders for infighting, which he said had caused nations to drift "further from unity than they were at the time of the founding of the Arab League," the 22-member body created in 1945.

Abdullah described a region awash with blood and beset by turmoil—from the sectarian battlegrounds of Iraq and Lebanon to the unresolved crisis in Sudan's Darfur region to brewing showdowns in Somalia and the Palestinian territories.

"In beloved Iraq, blood is shed among our brothers while there is an illegitimate foreign occupation and a hateful sectarianism that is threatening to develop into a civil war," the king said.

Abdullah neglected to mention the troubles in his own kingdom, where authorities are struggling to contain a radical Islamist movement and are cracking down on pro-reform activists.

"The real blame should be directed at us, the leaders of the Arab nation," Abdullah said. "Our constant disagreements and rejection of unity have made the Arab nation lose confidence in our sincerity and lose hope."

The king's remarks come at a time when Saudi Arabia is angling to bill itself as a regional power able to rein in warring factions and assert its authority in the face of a growing Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Last month, the Saudis negotiated the formation of a Palestinian unity government between the Fatah party and the militant group Hamas in an effort to end the financial embargo on the previous Hamas-led administration.

Earlier this month, Abdullah hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a one-day meeting in Riyadh.

The summit, the league's 19th such gathering, itself highlighted the Arab world's disarray.

Lebanon sent two delegations—one led by the Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and one led by his foe, the Syrian-supported President Emile Lahoud. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi boycotted the conference and told al Jazeera television that he was "divorcing" Arabs.

Many attendees remained cool toward the Kurdish- and Shiite-led Iraqi delegation and groused over the unceremonious execution of Saddam Hussein, the former Sunni Arab dictator.

The summit's major business is reviving a long-dormant initiative that offers full Arab peace with Israel if it withdraws from lands it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War and finds a "just solution" to the thorny issue of Palestinian refugees.

Arab leaders have opposed any modification of the plan, first introduced at a 2002 summit, and it seems unlikely that Israel, which rejected the earlier version, would embrace it in its current form. But the United States and Europe have supported the initiative as a first step to rejuvenating the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process. As a goodwill gesture, Saudi Arabia admitted an Israeli journalist traveling with the United Nations—the first Israeli reporter allowed into the strict Muslim kingdom.

While the region's monarchs and authoritarians bickered in the ornate conference hall, Arab journalists outside mustered some unity: They staged a mass walkout to protest the restrictions on access and the lack of basic technical equipment in the tightly controlled media center. Armed Saudi guards blocked journalists from interviewing delegates, and the media room had no video or sound of the conference.

The Arab world's best-known journalists packed up their laptops and marched out, along with most Western media, including McClatchy Newspapers. They were herded onto a bus equipped with TVs and a sound system that offered better access to the event than the elaborate media center the Saudis had built for the occasion.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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