Latest spat leaves Qaddafi in the cold with his camels

Lebanese Shia community blames Qaddafi for death of their leader, Sadr, in 1978.

The Lebanese are famed for their hospitality. But there is one guest Lebanon's Shia Muslim community is not anxious to welcome anytime soon: Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi.

A long-running dispute between Lebanese Shia Muslims and President Qaddafi threatened to disrupt a meeting of the Arab League which was scheduled to be held here at the end of March.

The 22 member states of the league were expected to discuss the raging conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, terrorism and the UN sanctions against Iraq as well as a host of other topics affecting the stability of the Arab world.

Arguments among Arab countries are routine, a reflection of the region's diversity with member states stretching from Morocco in North Africa to Iraq in the Middle East and including dictatorships, monarchies, and democracies.

The latest spat to bedevil the Arab League revolves around a 23-year-old mystery surrounding the fate of a Lebanese Shia leader, Imam Musa Sadr, who disappeared while on a trip to Libya.

Sadr championed the cause of the dispossessed Shia community, traditionally the most impoverished and under-represented section of Lebanon's multi-faith society. Sadr vanished along with two companions after reportedly arguing with Qaddafi in Libya in 1978.

Imam Musa Sadr's son, Sadreddine, says that he will "continue the struggle" to uncover the truth surrounding the disappearance of his father. "We will do whatever it takes to save them," he says.

"My personal belief is that they are still alive, it's not just wishful thinking," he says in a soft voice.

Libya maintains that Sadr and his colleagues left Tripoli for Italy and says it knows nothing of his subsequent whereabouts. An Italian magistrate later ruled that the men had never entered the country.

Since then, relations between Lebanon's Shia Muslims, who still revere Sadr, and the Libyan regime have been hostile.

As an embarrassed Lebanese government tried to soothe ruffled feathers, a Shia militant group, the Sadr Brigades, that had not been heard from since the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, released a statement warning of a "surprise" if "the criminal Qaddafi comes to Beirut before the Imam's disappearance is resolved."

In return, Qaddafi refused to attend a meeting in Beirut and demanded that the summit be relocated to Cairo.

Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League and a former Egyptian foreign minister, embarked on a shuttle mission to settle the crisis. In Beirut, he criticized the Shia objections to Qaddafi's presence, saying relocating the meeting could backfire on Lebanon's interests.

Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, the most powerful members of the Arab League, said that the summit should be held in Beirut.

Mr. Moussa then flew to Libya to persuade Qaddafi to drop his objections to holding the summit in Lebanon. The veteran Libyan leader agreed, but said he would not attend the meeting in person because of the threats to his life.

Lebanon's security and protocol chiefs may breathe a quiet sigh of relief that the eccentric Libyan leader will not be visiting Beirut. Qaddafi refuses to sleep in hotels when attending Arab summits and instead travels with a multi-million dollar luxury tent and a herd of camels.

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