RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – King Abdullah denounced the American military presence in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation" and called on the West to end its financial embargo against the Palestinians.
The Saudi monarch's speech Wednesday was a strongly worded lecture to Arab leaders that their divisions had helped fuel turmoil across the Middle East, and he urged them to show unity. But in opening the Arab summit, Abdullah also nodded to hardliners by criticizing the U.S. presence in Iraq.
"In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing between brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war," said the king, whose country is a U.S. ally that quietly aided the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
U.S. allies at the summit are trying to win support from other Arab governments to promote an Arab peace initiative that Washington hopes could revive the peace process with Israel. Arab hard-liners fear Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan will bow to U.S. pressure to water down the land-for-peace offer in an attempt to win Israeli acceptance.
"In wounded Palestine, the mighty people suffer from oppression and occupation," Abdullah said. "It has become vital that the oppressive blockade imposed on the Palestinians end as soon as possible so the peace process will get to move in an atmosphere without oppression."
The United States has so far rejected calls to end the financial embargo imposed on the Hamas-led Palestinian government formed after elections last year. Saudi Arabia and Arab states have called for an end to the sanctions after Hamas formed a new government last month that includes members of the moderate Fatah party.
Abdullah insisted that only when Arab leaders unite will they be able to prevent "foreign powers from drawing the region's future."
"The real blame should be directed at us, the leaders of the Arab nation," he said. "Our constant disagreements and rejection of unity have made the Arab nation lose confidence in our sincerity and lose hope."
The two-day summit plans to revive a 2002 initiative offering Israel peace with the Arab world if it withdraws from lands it seized in the 1967 Mideast war, a proposal the United States and Europe hope can build efforts to resume the long-stalled peace process.
Israel, which rejected the Arab peace initiative in 2002, now says it could accept it if it is amended, particularly to water down its provisions calling for a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugees issues.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both toured the region ahead of the summit, trying to build momentum for the peace process and the Arab initiative. Ban spoke Wednesday at the summit, calling the initiative "one of the pillars of the peace process" and urging Israel to "take a fresh look at it."
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa rejected amending the peace offer, saying, "They tell us to amend it, but we tell them to accept it first, then we can sit down at the negotiating table." But he said the Arabs must "do more to convince" the Israelis on the offer.
The summit is to reoffer the peace plan as is, but it will create "working groups" to promote the offer in talks with the United States, United Nations and Europe — and perhaps Israel. The summit's final resolution calls on Israel to accept the initiative and "seize this opportunity to resume serious, direct negotiations on all tracks."
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are hoping that the working groups can work behind the scenes to make the initiative more palatable to Israel and the West and the basis for a relaunching of talks. Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib told the Arab daily Al-Hayat that there was a "potential" that the working groups could hold direct talks with Israel.
But much depends on the makeup of the working groups, which could be the source of dispute at the summit. Some have spoken of restricting the membership to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. But the more hardline Syria — which opposed changing the initiative — may also seek to join, fearing it will be sidelined by the moderates.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, a guest at the Riyadh summit, said both sides should show flexibility. "The important thing is to get the negotiations started. In any negotiations there are changes in positions, because negotiations are like that," he said.