In symbolic recognition of US influence, a centrepiece of their summit will be a joint Arab commitment to the political reforms sought by Washington, but diplomats and analysts say it does not mean any leaders plan to give up power any time soon. 

Up to 14 heads of state, from the 22 members of the Arab League, are expected at the two-day meeting, which the Tunisian government unilaterally called off in March on the grounds that some Arab governments were obstructing a reformist agenda. 

Most of those absent are conservative rulers from the Gulf, as well as those at the centre of the region's two main conflicts.

Governing Council Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, took office only this week after a car bomb in Baghdad killed his predecessor. "We are heading towards a critical time in the process (a change of government on 30 June). That's why I could not go," Yawar told Reuters on Friday. 

Fellow council member Mahmud Uthman said Foreign Minister Hushiyar Zibari would attend. Public interest in the summit has been unusually low and Arab foreign ministers have worked hard over the past weeks to make sure no last-minute surprises derail the meeting. 

New Challenges

But with events moving fast and unpredictably in the Middle East, the Arab leaders may face new challenges when they sit down together in the Tunisian capital on Saturday. 

Political reform is expected to
be discussed at the summit

In just 10 days since the foreign ministers met in Cairo, the United States has imposed sanctions on Syria, Israeli forces have raided deep into the Gaza Strip, killing dozens of
Palestinians, and new details have emerged about the extent to which US troops have abused and maltreated Iraqi prisoners. 

An Arab diplomat said the summit would criticise the "immoral and inhumane practices and crimes of the coalition forces" and call for the trial of all those responsible, not just the US guards at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. 

"The resolution says the occupation should end as soon as possible and that the United Nations should have a role that is central and effective in rebuilding institutions," he added. 
 
Political reform

The modest resolution reflects the gap between Arab rulers, who fear chaos and fragmentation in Iraq, and many of their citizens, who hope for the humiliation and ignominious
withdrawal of US forces from the country, analysts said. 

"The resolution says the occupation should end as soon as possible and that the United Nations should have a role that is central and effective in rebuilding institutions"

Arab diplomat

Arab governments had considered taking the opportunity of the summit to revive peace overtures to Israel, enshrined in their Beirut declaration of 2002, but Arab diplomats say that after Israel's latest raids into Gaza the most they will do is restate the existing peace proposal. 

The Beirut declaration offered peace and normal relations with Israel in return for full withdrawal to the borders as they stood on the eve of the 1967 war. Israel dismissed it. 

The document on political reform commits Arab governments, including some of the world's most autocratic, to democracy,
equality for all, freedom of expression and rights for women. 

The commitments are far-reaching on paper but human rights
activists said without many specifics or a timetable for action
they might turn out to be empty promises.