- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

BANJUL, Gambia — A summit of African leaders opened yesterday with a special welcome for the firebrand presidents of Iran and Venezuela, each visiting the world’s poorest continent to win support for his anti-American agenda.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh hailed the presence of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the summit of the 53-nation African Union as “a morale booster as well as an assurance that Africa can make it.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit was seen as an attempt to bolster Iran in its standoff with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program. The Iranian president has made several high-profile trips to Asia, where he drew crowds of Muslims cheering Tehran for defying the West.

He prayed with African Muslims at Banjul’s main mosque Friday, encouraging Gambian Muslims to “come together on the path of Islam to God.”

Ninety percent of Gambia’s 1.6 million people are Muslim, and Islam is a powerful force throughout much of Africa.

Mr. Chavez repeated his attacks on the United States and President Bush in his speeches, and worked to form Latin American trading blocs to counterbalance U.S. economic power.

His country, the world’s ninth-largest oil producer, has talked to African oil producers about potential collaborations, though no agreements have been signed, said Richard Mendez, deputy head of mission at the Venezuelan Embassy in Ethiopia.

Iran is the world’s fourth-largest oil producer.

Mr. Mendez added that Venezuela is hoping for African support in its bid for one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council, a proposal opposed by the United States.

But Mr. Chavez’s appearance was more reflective of a broad desire to show solidarity with Africa, Mr. Mendez said.

The Venezuelan leader also is planning to visit Iran next month to discuss energy issues.

Leaders at the weekend summit were expected to address issues including the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, the rise of a hard-line Islamic regime in Somalia and often-deadly illegal migration by Africans to Europe.

Even if resolutions are passed, African Union members aren’t bound by them and the body has little funding to pursue independent action.

Among African leaders confirmed to attend were South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki.

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