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ISLAMABAD: Muslim leaders will meet today as Pakistan hosts a rare summit designed to increase trade and investment but likely to be overshadowed by the Gaza conflict as diplomats scramble to arrange a ceasefire.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Egyptian leader Mohammed Mursi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, key players in the Middle East, are scheduled to be among those attending the Developing Eight (D8) summit.
The D8 groups Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey, with an estimated total population of one billion.
Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan arrived in Islamabad yesterday and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is also due to attend. Bangladesh and Malaysia will be represented at adviser- and ministerial-level respectively.
The summit will mark the first visit by an Egyptian president to Pakistan in four decades and by the first by a Nigerian leader for 28 years.
Its ambitious goal is to increase trade between member countries from $130bn to $507bn by 2018.
Islamabad rarely hosts major international gatherings due to the Taliban and al Qaeda linked violence that has plagued the country since the 9/11 attacks.
The summit also coincides with the holy month of Muharram, a magnet for sectarian attacks.
Thousands of extra police and paramilitaries will deploy and construction work has been suspended around the diplomatic enclave to provide “God willing, foolproof security”, Islamabad police chief Bani Amin told reporters.
Pakistan wants the summit to boost trade and investment, strengthen its international standing and help “remove misconceptions (about Pakistan) created in a section of international media”, a government statement said.
The D8 is also due to adopt a charter at what will be its eighth summit. But commentators believe proceedings could be overshadowed by events in the Middle East, where 136 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed in eight days.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has flown to the Middle East to help secure a truce. Egypt, Iran and Turkey have been angry critics of Israel as it bombards the Gaza Strip to try to end Hamas rocket launches from the enclave.
A blast on a bus in Tel Aviv that injured 17 people in what Israel called a “terrorist” attack has further complicated international efforts to end the violence.
Egypt, which crucially maintains relations with both Hamas and Israel, has been a key player in trying to negotiate a ceasefire. Morsi is to address a joint session of the Pakistani parliament on Friday.
Erdogan told reporters he would discuss Gaza, the war in Syria and tensions in Iraq during meetings on the summit sidelines.
Iran’s Ahmadinejad will likely use the meeting to ease his country’s isolation due to sanctions over its contested nuclear programme. Many in the West suspect the programme masks a covert attempt to develop nuclear weapons, something vehemently denied by Iran.
Pakistan will also likely press Iran over a multi-billion dollar deal to import Iranian gas despite US pressure to abandon the project because of the sanctions.
Analysts say the summit is an opportunity for Pakistan to make diplomatic headway and overcome its reputation as a hub of global terrorism.
Retired general turned political analyst Talat Masood said it was a chance for it to emerge as “one of the leading players in the Islamic world,” but warned that events in the Middle East could dominate.
“The present crisis between Hamas and Israel and Iran’s relations with the US and important developments on this front will be a matter of serious discussion,” Masood said.
The group was formed in 1997 to advance development cooperation among the member nations. They are mainly Muslim states with the exception of Nigeria, which population is roughly divided between Muslims and Christians.