CASABLANCA, Morocco — Meeting under the shadow of a Syrian-led boycott, leaders of the Arab League convened an emergency summit meeting Wednesday to discuss the growing split between the moderate and radical states of the Arab world.
As the summit opened amid the pomp and splendor of Casablanca's royal palace, Libya joined the boycott, withdrawing the low-level delegation it had sent to a preparatory foreign ministers' meeting earlier in the week.
The Libyan walkout, which conference sources said was apparently planned before the delegation's arrival, brought the number of countries boycotting the summit to five. Syria, Lebanon, Algeria and South Yemen had all announced beforehand that they would not be attending.
'Sorry for Absence'
"I am sorry to see empty chairs," Morocco's King Hassan II said in his opening address to the summit. "The Arab Muslim world becomes paralyzed when it loses any of its members. Whatever the circumstances and the situation, I am sorry for their absence."
Hassan had called the summit, the first Arab League meeting in three years, to try to bridge the divisions between moderate Arab states, which favor peace negotiations with Israel, and the radicals, led by Syria, which oppose them. Diplomatic sources said the king also hoped that the summit would enhance Morocco's own prestige, which has been tarnished by international reluctance to support its annexation of the former Spanish Sahara territory.
But even before the summit opened, it became apparent that the meeting would fall far short of expectations on both those counts.
Faced with the prospect of disagreement on most of the key issues before them, only 10 of the 17 members attending the summit sent their heads of state. An attempt to draw up a detailed agenda beforehand also failed when the preliminary foreign ministers' meeting broke up without agreement.
'No Decisions at All'
"There was a consensus that the split in the Arab world was so serious that we should not take decisions that would further isolate the countries that are not attending," one conference participant said. "Unfortunately, that meant taking no decisions at all."
Diplomatic sources said Hassan spent most of Wednesday trying to salvage something from the summit by conferring with the other delegation heads on an agenda and by trying to persuade the Libyans not to leave. But the last-minute diplomatic maneuverings, which reportedly included direct contacts between Casablanca and the Libyan capital of Tripoli, failed to prevent Libya from joining the boycott.
Another blow to Hassan's hopes for the summit was the failure of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to attend. Iraq had been in favor of the meeting, and as late as Tuesday night, Moroccan officials were expressing hope that Hussein would attend.
But other conference participants said the Iraqi leader had apparently decided that it would not be worthwhile to attend because of the absence of so many other important leaders. "Who would he talk to?" a Palestinian official asked. "The president of Djibouti?"
Opening the two-day summit at a round table with many empty seats, Hassan bemoaned the differences among the Arabs, saying, "The way we treat each other at these meetings is not up to the level of our responsibilities."
But he said he still hoped that the gathering would help "bring our brothers together again" by setting a date for a follow-up meeting.
Moroccan officials added that Hassan has proposed that the Arab League send a delegation to the nations boycotting the summit to try to win their consent to another meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, later this year.