"By not taking part in the summit, Lebanon wanted to reaffirm that it should be represented by its head of state at such a meeting and that the Lebanese were unwilling to accept the status quo."

Political deadlock

Emile Lahoud's term as Lebanese president ended in November. Since then, 17 attempts to vote in a replacement have been postponed due to deadlock between the ruling coalition and the opposition over the make-up of the government.

The latest attempt to convene parliament for the vote was scheduled to take place on Tuesday, but late on Monday the session was postponed until April 22.

The Beirut government could still send a message to be read at the two day summit, which opens on March 29.

"We recognise that the Arab League has a role to play in dealing with the problem of Lebanese-Syrian relations, which are an element of the current domestic and political crisis in Lebanon," Mohammed Chatah, a senior adviser to Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister, told the AFP news agency.

"But to be effective, there needs to be preparatory work and the venue has to be appropriate."

'Sovereign country'

Nayla Muawad, Lebanon's social affairs minister, said: "The fact that the invitation to the summit was delivered to a resigned minister proves once more that the Syrian regime does not want to recognise or to admit that Lebanon is a free, independent, sovereign country."
Fawzi Salloukh, the former foreign minister and opposition MP, was given the invitation on March 13.

Syria, along with Iran, backs the Hezbollah-led opposition movement that wants greater representation in the cabinet.

On Monday, the Arab League urged Lebanon to attend the summit after its delegation did not take part in a preparatory meeting.

At that meeting, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the Arab League said that neither King Abdullah or Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, would travel to Damascus.

Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, has accused Syria, which wielded a political and military hold over its neighbour for decades, of interfering in the presidential election.

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, is also expected to snub the summit.