Powered By Miaoxiao!

Instead, they argued the administration’s strong support of Israel made it difficult to undertake political reform or to stop extremists driven by hatred of U.S. policies.

“Let us face it,” said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal. “We perceive no clashes of civilization or competing value systems. The real bone of contention is the longest conflict in modern history.”

The unusually frank comments were made in a conference session that was supposed to have been closed to the news media.

But delegates’ words were inadvertently piped to reporters in a nearby media centre.

President George W Bush has said establishing greater democracy in the Middle East would be a central goal of his second term.

But after Arab backlash to the idea, the focus of the conference, officially known as the “Forum for the Future”, was watered down to focus mostly on economic liberalisation.

US officials in the past have rejected a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political reform in the Middle East.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell made that point again as he flew to Rabat.

“We can’t keep pointing to the Middle East peace process as the reason we don’t undertake reform efforts that are needed by these nations,” he told reporters travelling with him.

Later at a news conference, Mr Powell acknowledged that progress in Middle East peace process would help with political reform.

“But we are not sitting here today saying no reform until that is resolved,” he said.

But other Arab officials echoed Prince Saud’s remarks or brought up the US war in Iraq, which is also deeply unpopular in the region.

The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, attributed insecurity in the region to the stagnation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Libya’s representative, deputy foreign minister Hassouna Shawish, said “continued bloodshed makes it difficult for us all. I’m talking about bloodshed in Iraq.”

Approximately 60 per cent of Likud’s central committee voted in favour of a new governing alliance with the centre-left Labour Party which Mr Sharon argued was necessary to avoid early elections and the derailing of his Gaza withdrawal plan.

Prime Minister Sharon is likely to open negotiations with Labour leader Shimon Peres this weekend.

Labour’s entry into government became vital after Sharon sacked the last remaining member of his coalition government, the secular Shinui party, after it voted against his 2005 state budget and extra funding to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Two other coalition partners had earlier departed the government over their opposition to the Gaza pullout plan which the Prime Minister has insisted will be implemented at all costs.

This new alliance marks a turnaround for the Likud party’s central committee which ruled out an invitation in August to form a coalition unity with the Labour Party.

While many Likud members are uneasy about Labour’s entry into government, few have an appetite for early elections which are not otherwise due to take place until the end of 2006.

Mr Sharon is also likely to bring United Torah Judaism, a small ultra-Orthodox party, into government.

The plan to withdraw from Gaza, captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, enjoys broad support among Israelis. But opponents call it a “reward for terror.”

Nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for his aptitude at plowing through opposition, Mr Sharon has also been buoyed by fresh optimism that peace talks with the Palestinians might resume after a January 9 election for a successor to Yasser Arafat.

In a departure from his longstanding demand for a crackdown on Palestinian militants waging a four-year-old revolt, Mr Sharon said he might be willing to scale back Israeli army sweeps if militants halted attacks.

But violence flared on Wednesday when Israeli troops shot dead four Palestinians in southern Gaza. Military sources said the Palestinians were believed to be gunmen or arms smugglers.

The man, named by a local newspaper as 38-year-old Mark Thompson, was with two friends at Opal Reef, about 75km north of northern Queensland town of Cairns, when the shark attacked.

The friends pulled him semi-conscious from the water amid a “cloud of blood”.

Mr Thompson suffered massive leg wounds in the attack, including a severed artery, and died from a heart attack before paramedics could reach him.

Authorities are unsure which breed of shark was responsible for the attack but a tiger shark, bronze whaler or bull shark have been named as likely suspects.

An expert will examine the bite marks this week to determine the breed of shark.

Queensland Rescue Helicopter rescue pilot Spida Rider, who flew the man’s body to the mainland, said the area had been teeming with fish and sharks.

“It just surprises me that a shark would attack a person when there was so much food around the area,” he said.

Despite the headlines, the chances of a shark attack are extremely rare in Australia.

The earliest reported Australian shark attack death was in 1791.

On average, two or three Australians die each year from bee stings.

Over the past two centuries, on average less than one person has been killed per year by sharks.

In a more upbeat story, fisherman Dave Richardson emerged from his marathon 35-hour stint in the sea alive and well after his trawler overturned and quickly sunk near Moreton Island in southern Queensland.

Clutching a five-metre bamboo pole, tides swept him 100 kilometres south on Australia’s eastern seaboard until he was rescued.

His rescuer, fisherman Steve Hickman, originally thought he saw a turtle directly ahead.

“I seen his fingers. I thought maybe it was a loggerhead turtle. You don’t get used to seeing humans floating out there,” he recalled.

“Geez, I’m glad to see you,” were the first words from the exhausted trawlerman.

During his ordeal, Mr Richardson drifted close to other boats several times as they passed him in the darkness.

He’s expected to make a full recovery from sunburn, exposure and dehydration

However his 68-year-old father is missing, presumed drowned.

The meeting between the ousted Iraqi president and a member of the defence team appointed by his family was granted nearly a year after Hussein’s capture by US troops in a hideout near his hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. Saddam is being held at a US base at Baghdad airport.

Defence counsel said the Iraqi leader appeared well during the four-hour interview.

As the special tribunal set up to prosecute his regime confirmed it was poised to begin hearings, a senior official revealed that Saddam himself would be the last to be hauled into the dock.

“The president seems in good health, much better compared to his first appearance before the court,” said a statement issued in Amman by the legal team appointed by his wife and daughters.

Saddam and 11 senior aides appeared in court in July for the first time since their capture to hear preliminary charges of crimes against humanity.

The lawyers, who have throughout challenged the legality of the planned trials, had been pressing to see Saddam for months and complained vigorously they had not been allowed to attend interrogations of their client.

The Iraq Special Tribunal, established by the US-led coalition last December, confirmed earlier this week it was ready to begin proceedings.

“The Iraqi Special Tribunal will be starting investigative hearings for the senior leadership of the former regime, in coordination with international observers,” a statement said.

It gave no precise starting date but the British embassy in Baghdad said the first hearing would open next week.

“It is important not only that justice is done but that justice is seen to be done, so Iraqis can come to terms with their past,” embassy spokeswoman, Victoria Whitford said.

Britain has given 1.3 million pounds ($A3.317) in financial assistance for the trials.

In an interview with a Swiss newspaper, Justice Minister Malek Dohan al-Hassan made clear Saddam himself was likely to be the last of the dozen defendants in custody to appear before the court.

“Saddam himself would be judged the last, long after the elections in January,” Hassan said during a visit to Geneva.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali” for his alleged role in the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in 1988, will be the first to appear, the minister confirmed.

He would be followed by Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti, a half-brother of Saddam, who was also a top presidential adviser.

The minister criticised the decision to bring forward the first hearings to before landmark polls set for January 30, saying it would have been better to await the legitimacy of an elected government.

“Trials that are so symbolic of the leaders of the ex-regime should have been opened after a legitimate Iraqi government was created by the ballot box, that is to say after the elections,” said Hassan.

He added he would also have preferred the trials be delayed until after the withdrawal of US-led troops.

The landmark meeting between Saddam and his lawyer came after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) cancelled planned talks with his defence team.

An ICRC spokesman said the agency had seen little point to the talks after the lawyers accused it of acting as a “tool” of the United States by not revealing details of its five visits to Saddam.

Twelve nations signed the Cuzco Declaration in Peru to breathe the new South American Community of Nations, combining 361 million people into a single market.

“We are here to give … soul, heart and life to the dream of (Simon) Bolivar,” Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said, referring to the South American independence icon who fought Spain in the 19th century and hoped to unify the continent into one country.

He was joined by the leaders of Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Surinam and Guyana, while the heads of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador sent representatives.

“Sooner rather than later we will have a single currency, a single passport,” said President Toledo, at the start of the summit in the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco.

Beginning by phasing out tariffs, they hope it will increase South America’s clout in international trade talks.

The move will create a single market of 361 million people with a combined GDP of around $A1,280 billion.

In their declaration, the presidents said they represented their peoples’ aspirations “in favour of the integration, unity and construction of a common future”.

The bloc sees a convergence of the two main trade groups of the region, the Andean Community (Can) and Mercosur, as well as Chile, Surinam and Guyana.

The bloc’s creation will have little immediate impact, but officials say a higher degree of integration will be beneficial in terms of greater trade and political clout.

However differences exist between members of the bloc, with the regions biggest powers, Brazil and Argentina, currently locked in trade disputes.

Bolivia and Chile have no diplomatic relations at all due to tensions over Bolivia’s claims to a chunk of coast lost to Chile in 1879.

Brazil has been picked to host the first Summit of the South American Community of Nations early next year.