DAMASCUS, Syria – Saudi Arabia said on Saturday that Syria should be punished for blocking a resolution to Lebanon's political crisis, escalating a dispute between U.S. allies and Damascus that has marred an Arab summit.
The bitter rift raises fears that tensions between Lebanon's U.S.- and Saudi-backed government and the pro-Syrian opposition will increase after the summit ends on Sunday.
For more than a year, Lebanon has been the scene of a proxy struggle between the United States and its Arab allies — who back Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government — and Syria — an ally of Iran and the Shiite Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan embarrassed Syrian President Bashar Assad by boycotting the Damascus summit, which began Saturday. In a diplomatic snub, they sent low-level officials instead to the gathering.
Lebanon boycotted the summit completely, accusing Damascus of preventing the election of a new Lebanese president in order to destabilize the country and reassert its control over the neighbor.
The summit began as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Israel for talks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. She was due to head to Jordan as well, to meet King Abdullah II — who stayed away from the summit — and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who did attend.
On Saturday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal sharply criticized Syria at a press conference in Riyadh, timed to coincide with the opening speeches of the summit in Damascus.
He blamed Syria for blocking an Arab League compromise aimed at resolving the Lebanon presidential crisis.
"The problem is that what had been agreed by consensus in the Arab League, including by Syria, wasn't implemented in reality," he said.
He called for the Arab League to punish member states that breach a common resolution. "Call it punishment or countermeasures," he said. "There must be a deterrent action."
Saud also blamed Damascus for worsening Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts and the situation in Iraq.
Egypt echoed the criticism.
"Our hope was that a long-awaited solution to the political crisis threatening Lebanon's stability would precede this summit," a message from President Hosni Mubarak to the gathering said. "Unfortunately, this did not occur."
Lebanon is not the only dispute between Syria and the pro-U.S. camp. Sunni-led Arab governments are deeply worried over Syria's close alliance with Shiite Muslim Iran, which they fear is increasing its influence in the Mideast. They also blame Syria in part for hurting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through its support for the Hamas militant group.
In a speech to the summit, Assad appeared to strike a conciliatory tone, not mentioning the no-shows at the gathering and insisting Syria wants to resolve the disputes among Arab countries. He said Syria was not interfering in Lebanon.
"The key to a solution is in the hands of the Lebanese. They have their country, constitution and institutions," he said.
Addressing the summit later, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi poured contempt on his fellow Arab leaders for their disunity.
"If they (Arabs) will not reorganize themselves ... they will be marginalized and turn into garbage dumps," he said.
He warned Arab leaders they could be overthrown like the U.S. toppled former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "Your turn is next," Gadhafi told the leaders, some of whom looked stunned while others broke into laughter at his frankness. "Destruction will be yours."