TUNIS, Tunisia — Arab leaders were in the midst of opening speeches at a summit Saturday when Libyan leader Col. Moammar Kadafi, a perpetual cause of commotion, stood up and swept from the conference hall in a show of indignation.
With his brown robes flowing and a bevy of aides flapping along behind, Kadafi stalked out, packed dozens of journalists into a pair of waiting tour buses and took the group back to a guest palace near the ancient city of Carthage for an impromptu news conference.
Kadafi told reporters that he was "disgusted" by the summit agenda and repeated his long-standing threat to pull Libya out of the Arab League once and for all.
"I regret that Libya is obliged to boycott the session of the summit," the famously harsh and eccentric Kadafi told journalists. "The agenda before us today is that of the governments. Libya is a state of the masses, and for this reason it will side with the people."
Kadafi's tantrum set the tone for this uneasy gathering, which first convened in March only to collapse amid disputes. bitter squabbling. As Arab kings, presidents and emirs made their way to this rigidly controlled Mediterranean city, many were pulled uncomfortably between the growing disenchantment and radicalization of their people and steady international pressure to make some show of cooperation and reform. All the while, the shadow of Arab bloodshed in Gaza and Iraq fell heavily over the gathering.
"I need not speak about the great changes taking place in the world, and the violence and use of double standards," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told the summit in his opening speech. "Opportunities for peace are decreasing."
Moussa took a thinly veiled swipe at Libya, which annoyed fellow Arab nations in December by cutting a deal to give up its banned weapons programs for better relations with Britain and the United States.
Moussa bemoaned "these vain attempts to divide us," and said sensitive topics such as illicit weapons should be negotiated only "within the structure of the Arab League."
"It's much better than individual negotiations with outside parties."
Kadafi told reporters he felt slighted by the Arab League, which has ignored his repeated calls to merge Israel and the Palestinian territories into a single state. In recent years, the Libyan leader has advocated fervently for the creation of "Isratine," a utopian, nonreligious state he describes in his self-published "White Book."
Inside the honeycombed summit hall, Arab leaders voiced more conventional policies, calling for the resumption of peace talks in hopes of reaching a two-state solution. The Arab League urged Israel to retreat to its 1967 borders, criticized the Jewish state's assassination of Hamas militant leaders and stood through a moment of silence for Palestinians slain in the last year.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat spoke to the Arab leaders from his besieged West Bank compound via massive television screens that loomed over the gathering. He sent greetings to the people of Iraq and said that Israel was in the midst of a "war of annihilation" against the Palestinian people.
The Arab League is expected to condemn terrorism and the killing of all civilians, including Israelis, on Sunday. Arafat, himself accused by Israel of fostering terrorism, foreshadowed that declaration, decrying the killing of civilians, "be they Palestinians or Israelis, because this is against our moral beliefs and values which reject terrorism."
The rulers were expected to condemn the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, to urge the speedy end of the U.S.-led occupation and to call for the United Nations to take charge of the country.
They also were expected to declare their solidarity with Syria, which President Bush accused of harboring terrorists and slapped with sanctions this month.
On the streets, popular sentiment is for a harsh condemnation of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a call for the total and immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. But many Arab leaders quietly facilitated the war -- and many believe that the presence of U.S. troops is preventing even greater chaos from swallowing the country.
"The Arab leaders know the reality, so I wouldn't expect anything extreme to come out," said Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail. "The reality is that nobody could ask the alliance to withdraw immediately from Iraq. But at least the Iraqi people want to know the coalition forces will withdraw within three years or four years."
To the skepticism of reformists throughout the Arab world, the governments were expected to pledge support of women's rights, human rights and the democratization of political systems. When a draft of a U.S. working paper calling for Arab reform was leaked to the media this year, infuriated Arab leaders accused the Bush administration of meddling in Arab affairs. But the White House's Greater Middle East Initiative also turned up pressure on Arab states to come up with a reform agenda of their own.