The Arab League's biannual ordinary session on Thursday is chiefly aimed at preparing for a 22-23 March Arab summit in Algiers but comes during a period of immense political change in the Middle East.

The post-electoral transition period in Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts should also feature heavily in the discussions between the foreign ministers from the Cairo-based pan-Arab body's 22 members.

Although Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa said on Wednesday that the Syrian-Lebanese crisis was not officially on the meeting's agenda, differences between Arab countries on the issue were expected to play out.

Turning up the heat

Washington has turned up the heat on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in the wake of the 14 February assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

The pro-Syrian government in Beirut resigned on Monday and international calls have been growing on Damascus to pull out its troops from Lebanon.

"The Syrian-Lebanese crisis will not be on the agenda of Thursday's meeting. But since everybody is talking about it, there will be discussions on the issue," Musa said. 

Al-Asad: Troops will withdraw
from Lebanon in a few months

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghait stressed that the United Nations should be involved in any withdrawal.

"It is logical that since Resolution 1559 was initiated by the UN Security Council, its implementation should be carried out in cooperation with the UN, within the framework of Syrian-Lebanese relations," he said.

"A mechanism is being discussed for the implementation of Resolution 1559 and on ways in which the UN could be involved," he said on Wednesday.

"Egypt encourages Syria to solve the situation in Lebanon as quickly as possible," Abu al-Ghait added.

The Security Council Resolution 1559, sponsored by France and the United States and passed last September, calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, although it does not mention Syria by name.

Syrian withdrawal

Lebanese diplomat Bassam Numani, representing his country at the Cairo meeting in the absence of outgoing Foreign Minister Mahmud Hammud, reaffirmed his support for the Taif Accords, an older agreement between the two countries providing for a phased partial withdrawal and offering no timetable.

Lebanon is "keen to maintain good relations with Syria, as with all other Arab countries, and no power in the world can change this", he said on Wednesday upon arriving in Egypt.

On Tuesday, Time magazine released excerpts from an interview with al-Asad in which he said his country would withdraw its troops from Lebanon in "the next few months".