Arab leaders' outrage at G8 plans for future of Middle East

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ARAB leaders are spurning invitations to tomorrow’s G8 summit amid a diplomatic furore over its plans to lay down goals for a Greater Middle East and North Africa.

The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisa, Egypt and Pakistan are understood to be boycotting the summit, which President George Bush wanted to use to show unity with the Islamic world.

They have said they feel patronised and outraged at proposals for the G8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, in the United States, to be used to lay out a manifesto for an area stretching from Afghanistan to Libya.

Mr Bush’s original plan was to make tomorrow’s summit a bridge-building exercise - seeking to repair relations strained by the Iraq war. He intended to propose renewal for the Greater Middle East. This idea has been enthusiastically backed by King Abdullah II of Jordan and also signed up to by the leaders of Turkey and Yemen.

The new leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan are also on board.

But president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has said he is "furious'" about being dictated to by the G8 group of the world’s richest countries. Leaders in Jordan and Saudi Arabia have echoed his comments.

France and Russia have also blocked plans for a Democracy Assistance Group which was to be unveiled at the G8 meeting. Their ambassadors said that it smacked of regime change.

10 Downing Street said yesterday that the agenda for the annual G8 summit will involve the Middle East - and possibly the United Nations resolution setting out the blueprint for Iraq after the handover of power in three weeks’ time.

There is also likely to be dispute over Iraq’s debt.

London and Washington want to cancel up to 90 per cent - an idea also opposed by Germany and Russia, to whom Saddam Hussein owed several billion dollars. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, will fly to the US today amid an unprecedented security operation. It is being held in Sea Island, a luxury resort - but the 3,000 journalists will be staying 80 miles away in Savannah.

Anti-globalisation protesters are also expected to gather in nearby towns - where they will meet some of the 20,000 police and troops patrolling the area. Avenger surface-to-air missile batteries have been scattered throughout the salt marshes, with ships poised offshore to intercept possible terrorist vessels.

National Guard and army troops now almost outnumber local residents - turning the holiday resort into a military camp.

On Thursday, the eight leaders will meet with counterparts from Africa, including Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, and Abdulaye Wade, the president of Senegal.

The G8 is the second of a series of international gatherings this month, starting with the D-Day commemorations in France at the weekend. Several leaders will stay on to attend Friday’s state funeral for Ronald Reagan and then attend next week’s European Union summit in Brussels.

Many of the leaders in Georgia will also meet again at the NATO summit in Istanbul at the end of the month.