Karen Hughes, the United States' top image maker abroad, will address the gathering amid fury over the publication in the European press of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed and the broadcast of new images of US prisoner abuse in Iraq.

  

Abdullah al-Rumaihi, Qatar's assistant foreign minister, told reporters that this year's gathering might go further than previous ones by discussing the establishment of a "council for Islamic-US relations."

  

Despite the fact that the cartoon controversy started in Europe, not in the United States, "one of the biggest challenges in international policy today is the growing tension between the United States and Islamic societies," Rumaihi said.

 

"Some (in the Islamic world) diverted the popular anger (toward the United States) in order to settle old scores with Washington," Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, former dean of the sharia (Islamic law) faculty at Qatar University, told AFP.

 

"The forum is being held at a difficult time, amid high tension between the East and the West, which, for many, is embodied in America," he said.

 

Marginalised liberals

 

"The forum is being held at a difficult time, amid high tension between the East and the West, which, for many, is embodied in America"

Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, former dean of the sharia (Islamic law) faculty at Qatar University

Ansari lamented how "regimes in the Islamic world continue to marginalise liberals and keep them out of positions of responsibility, while appeasing the sides that fuel hostility to the United States."

 

Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and a close adviser to George Bush, will address the opening session of the forum later on Saturday along with Qatari leaders.

  

Participants in the three-day gathering include Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, who earned the wrath of some religious leaders last year when she took on the role traditionally performed by a male imam and led an Islamic prayer service in New York.

  

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan and the leaders of Muslim minorities in several Western countries are among the 700 people from 38 nations expected to turn up at the forum's fourth edition.