DOHA (Reuters) - An Arab summit in Qatar on Monday is expected to back Sudan over an international arrest warrant for the Sudanese president and try to heal a deep rift between Arab states over how to deal with ascendant Shi'ite power Iran.
Omar Hassan al-Bashir arrived in the Gulf state of Qatar on Sunday, after visits to Egypt, Eritrea and Libya in the weeks since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued the warrant for his arrest and accused him of masterminding war crimes in Darfur.
Qatar, which hosts a key U.S. military base, said last week it had faced unspecified pressure not to receive Bashir but it repeated an invitation for him to attend.
Bashir's presence poses a challenge for the summit of the 22-member Arab League but it is expected to voice support for him. After the demise of Saddam Hussein, international justice for the Sudanese leader would set another precedent for leaders accused by opposition and rights groups of ruling by repression.
Arab governments have struggled to respond to Iran's political clout since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought long oppressed Shi'ite Muslims to power there.
The leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia see Iran's hand behind the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories -- Islamist groups who refuse to renounce armed action in the historic Arab conflict with Israel.
Other Arab countries with good ties to Iran, such as Syria and Qatar, back the populist view in the Arab world that the policies of Hezbollah and Hamas are legitimate responses to Israel, which rejects returning Arab lands it seized in 1967.
Israel's recent war on Gaza exposed the divisions, with Qatar hosting a crisis summit that brought together Arab leaders plus Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and leading figures from Hamas. The meeting threatened to revoke an Arab peace proposal to Israel, championed by Washington's Arab allies.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia refused to attend, saying an economic summit of Arab leaders that had been planned before the Gaza war would suffice. Egypt is the Arab world's most populous country and Saudi Arabia is the world's biggest exporter of oil and the birthplace of Islam, making them regional heavyweights.
"The Doha summit is still a battleground between the emerging de facto alliance between Qatar, Syria and Iran on one side, and the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians on the other," said Ali al-Ahmed, a U.S.-based Saudi opposition figure. It was not clear if any Iranian officials would attend as observers.
EGYPT SPOILS THE SHOW?
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's surprise decision not to attend has spoiled plans by Qatar and Arab League chief Amr Moussa to make the meeting a reconciliation summit.
Egypt apparently still feels rancour at the Gaza summit chaos. The Egyptian and Saudi leaders also pulled out of last year's summit in Damascus in protest at Syria backing Hezbollah in Lebanon, which they believe was at Iran's bidding.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew to Riyadh this month for fence-mending talks with King Abdullah ahead of the Doha summit. Observers had assumed the mini-summit also mollified Mubarak, who flew to Riyadh that day too.
Other points of dispute such as Syrian policy in Lebanon, which has elections soon, and Damascus's alliance with Tehran would not be on the table, he said. Analysts surmise the Riyadh summit cut a deal to prevent these issues exploding in Doha.
Saudi Arabia has been keen on a truce with Syria and Qatar, and is concerned that Arab divisions allow Iran to trumpet itself as the champion of the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of mainstream Sunni Islam, fears that the United States will come to a historic agreement with Iran, recognising it as the regional power, thus creating a possible threat to Al Saud family rule.
Goodwill feelers put out to Iran by new U.S. president Barack Obama have created further unease.