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Extensive agenda for Arab summit

TUNIS -- Disputes over the agenda and the reluctance of some leaders to attend threaten to mar this weekend's Arab League Summit -- expected to focus on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, spiraling violence in the Palestinian territories, and political changes in the Arab world.

Tunisia, which canceled March's summit, expressed hope yesterday that this weekend's gathering would produce a united stand on the Arab world's most pressing matters.

As the Arab League made a second attempt in two months to convene its annual summit, some of the same differences that plagued the previous effort threatened to mar this meeting as well.

But President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was optimistic, saying he expected Arabs to address issues affecting regional security and stability.

The summit comes as violence surges in Iraq amid efforts to form a government that would take sovereignty from the US-led occupation authority on June 30.

Leaders also are being pressured to take a united stand on the Palestinian issue after a steep escalation of violence in the Palestinian territories. About 40 Palestinians have died in an Israeli military offensive in a Gaza Strip refugee camp this week.

In the statement carried by the official Tunisian news agency, Ben Ali called for international action to implement the US-backed ''road map" peace plan that envisages a Palestinian state by next year.

''There is an urgent need for international protection of the Palestinian people by committing Israel to the agreements it has signed and implement the road map in order to achieve a comprehensive and just peace," Ben Ali said.

As foreign ministers arrived for preparatory discussions, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa reviewed final details with Foreign Minister Habib ben Yahia of Tunisia. Their agenda includes overhauling the Arab League, which consists of 21 Arab countries and the Palestinians and represents 270 million people.

''We hope that the summit will be a qualitative leap in joint Arab action," Moussa said upon his arrival in Tunis late Wednesday.

According to one draft proposal, Arab leaders will endorse greater participation by their people in running their nations' affairs -- but they do not spell out how. The scheduled March summit foundered over differences on how to revive an Israeli-Arab peace initiative and how to respond to the issue of political change, which was triggered by the US-proposed ''Greater Middle East Plan" that envisages broad political and economic changes.

That plan urges Arab states to promote democracy, human rights, and the status of women, and encourage better education and economic liberalization.

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