BRASILIA, Brazil – South American and Arab leaders opened an unprecedented summit Tuesday to usher in a new wave of cooperation aimed at undercutting the international influence of the United States.
With 9,000 soldiers posted around the city and helicopters flying overhead, 16 heads of state and top officials from 34 South American, Middle Eastern and North African nations gathered for the first Summit of South American-Arab Countries.
"Today we are here in a historic opportunity to launch cooperation between the South American and Arab worlds," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (search) said.
Silva said the leaders must band together to ensure that free trade helps the developing world's masses, instead of only helping rich countries and multinational corporations.
"We're seeking fair and just trade free of subsidies imposed by rich countries that ensures that poor countries receive the benefits of globalization," he said.
The summit started amid the biggest show of security in Brazilian capital since Silva was sworn into office 2 1/2 years ago as the first elected leftist leader of Latin America's largest country.
Police said four pistols were confiscated from U.S. security guards for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani ahead of the summit because paperwork had not been filled out for them to carry the weapons.
The leaders will hold two days of talks, and are expected to join forces by signing a "Declaration of Brasilia."
In the draft declaration, the leaders pledge to support sweeping political and economic efforts to tighten links between their regions.
They see stronger ties as a way to counter U.S. dominance in the global political arena, a key policy goal of Silva's, who proposed the summit during a 2003 trip to the Middle East. The gathering comes at a time when Washington is pressuring Arab nations to relax their mostly authoritarian systems of government.
A separate ceremony was scheduled Tuesday for officials to endorse an agreement between the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (search) countries and Mercosur, a key South American economic bloc, leading to negotiations for a free trade area linking the two regions.
Mercosur's full-fledged members are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The GCC's members are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.
The draft declaration also condemns Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory and denounces terrorism but asserts the right of people to resist foreign occupation, according the document approved Monday by foreign ministers.
"The document is a very good one and deals with all the issues that are important to the two sides," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said. "This has been a long time coming."
In the statement, the two regions demand that Israel, whose biggest ally is the United States, disband settlements in Palestinian areas, including "those in East Jerusalem," and retreat to its borders before the 1967 Mideast war.
"It's not against Israel. It's certainly against the occupation by Israel," said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.
They also lash out at U.S. economic sanctions against Syria and denounce terrorism. But they assert the right of people "to resist foreign occupation in accordance with the principles of international legality and in compliance with international humanitarian law."
The clause was a clear reference to Israeli and American condemnation of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The declaration came under fire from leading Jewish groups.
"It leaves the door open for terrorists groups to interpret it as a support for their criminal activities," said Sergio Widder, the Simon Wiesenthal Center representative for South America.
His group sent a letter to South American foreign ministers arguing that "the best contribution the region can give Arab nations is its recent history of overcoming dictatorships to become full-fledged democracies."
Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said that "terrorism is condemned in a clear manner," but with regard to the paragraph relating to the right of resistance, "each party will read it as they understand it."
In another jab at Israel, the declaration reaffirms "the importance of the accession of all countries of the region without exception to the (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and the placement of all their nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards," referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Israel is widely believed to have an advanced nuclear program, but it neither acknowledges nor denies it, following instead a policy of nuclear ambiguity.
The draft supports international efforts, including the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. And on Iraq, the two sides stressed the need to respect the "unity, sovereignty and independence of Iraq and of not interfering in its internal affairs."