Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends press conference with Egyptian Sunni clerics at Al-Azhar headquarters in Cairo in visit to Egypt for Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit, Egypt, Tuesday (Photo: AP)
Heads of state from across the Islamic world meet in Cairo Wednesday to tackle crises ranging from Syria's civil war to the battle against Islamist militants in Mali, with their sharp differences expected to be laid bare.
Syria will not be represented at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit even though much of the debate is expected to be focused on the conflict that has ravaged that country for almost 23 months, leaving tens of thousands dead.
The meeting, set to take place at 1 pm, will gather leaders of 26 of the OIC's 57 states, with Egypt's first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, assuming the organisation's rotating presidency.
The gathering will call for "serious dialogue" between the Syrian opposition and government officials "not directly involved in oppression" according to a draft resolution obtained by AFP.
The call for dialogue, drafted by foreign ministers after two days of preparatory meetings, will pile pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to respond to a surprise offer of talks by Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition National Coalition.
The document stresses the need to maintain "Syria's territorial integrity and sovereignty", while underlining that "the main responsibility for the continued violence falls on the Syrian government".
The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which began as an anti-regime uprising but deteriorated into civil war when Assad's forces used violence to put down protests.
The attendance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the first visit to Egypt by an Iranian president since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, could complicate debate.
Iran is the chief regional backer of Assad, while Egypt and Gulf powerhouse Saudi Arabia bitterly oppose the Syrian president and support rebels seeking his ouster.
A meeting is scheduled between Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia –members of a quartet dealing with Syria – on the sidelines of the summit.
The two-day meeting had been scheduled to take place in 2011 but was postponed due to the regional uprisings that overthrew four Arab dictators, including Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak, the OIC's secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said.
The summit "will discuss the major conflicts in the Islamic world," the former Turkish diplomat told AFP.
It will provide OIC members, with their differing foreign policies, a chance "to coordinate positions and support the states' sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said.
The Cairo summit will also discuss the conflict in Mali, where France is pursuing attacks against Islamist militants.
Egypt and Qatar have in the past said that the conflict in Mali needed to be resolved politically.
The Islamic leaders will also discuss the issue of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, a subject regularly brought up at OIC summits since the organisation's creation in 1969.
The questions of Islamophobia, Muslim minorities in the world and economic cooperation in the Islamic world are also on the agenda.
Sectarian tensions between the Islamic world's Sunnis and Shiites were brought to the surface on Tuesday during Ahmadinejad's visit to Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning.
Senior Al-Azhar clerics launched into a tirade against "some Shiites" for insulting some of the Prophet Mohammed's companions as the Iranian president listened with noticeable unease.
Ahmadinejad was also targeted by a shoe-throwing protester as he left a Cairo mosque. Four people have been detained over the incident, a security official said.