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Arab leaders pledge reform on their terms

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Arab League summit overshadowed by Gadhafi walkout.
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TUNIS, Tunisia (CNN) -- Arab leaders concluded a two-day summit in Tunisia on Sunday by agreeing to embark on a path of reform "according to our own culture and terms of reference," Tunisia's foreign minister said.

The leaders also condemned the occupation of Iraq and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops, and they called for a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

"The issue of the Palestinian people is the first issue and top priority issue," Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia said at a news conference after the close of the summit.

Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa said there was no discussion of deploying Arab troops in Iraq before a new U.N. resolution and a sovereign Iraqi government are in place.

"Arab forces cannot be part of an occupying force," Moussa said.

Yahia and Moussa came under almost hostile questioning from Arab journalists who accused the leaders of ignoring the needs of the Palestinians and the Iraqis and bending too far to the will of the United States, which had hoped for a strong statement of support for reforms in the Arab world.

Instead, the Arab leaders presented few specifics.

Yahia responded that on the issue of reforms -- human rights, women's rights and democratic processes -- the leaders acted for "the future of our societies" and "not at the request of anybody."

"It has been done in a way that it is homegrown process, because the reforms are from within the countries," he said. "First, we must address this issue internally. We are not going to interfere in the sovereign decisions of each country.

"The level of reference would be in conformity with universal standard concerning the role of women, human rights [and] the democratization process, but according to our own culture and our own terms of reference."

Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister, also said that the U.S. Syria Accountability Act -- which slaps sanctions against Syria for allegedly supporting terrorists -- is another negative trend "added to many negatives" that make the already muddled situation in the Middle East more difficult.

"The U.S. sanctions are unjust," he said.

Saturday's opening session was marred by the early and dramatic walkout of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who said the Arab League leaders were out of touch with Arabs and were working from the wrong agenda.

Gadhafi, who has been considering withdrawing Libya from the Arab League, was particularly incensed by the League's refusal to take up his proposal for a single Palestinian-Israeli state. "That was the last session that I'm going to take part in," he said.

Moussa had little to say about Gadhafi's walkout.

"We have great respect for Gadhafi, and I will not argue with his viewpoints," he said Sunday. "But all initiatives were distributed as official documents, including Libya's, and that's on record."

The United States, most Arab leaders and many international observers favor establishing a Palestinian state separate from Israel as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Arab leaders were more concerned with restarting the stalled peace talks and removing what they see as Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people. Israel, Yahia said, is "sabotaging or demolishing the road map."

The leaders were also in agreement in denouncing the prisoner abuse scandal at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, calling it "immoral and inhuman."

Differences among the leaders of the 22-nation league threatened the annual meeting earlier in the year when a meeting scheduled for March was postponed over those differences. But Yahia said the time was well-spent.

"We had not finished deliberating on the agenda," he said. "We were really forced by the developments around us. ... We took the time needed and built reconciliation and consensus in a quiet and serious dialogue. We did not take decisions on emotions.

"I don't think we have a magic wand, but we have a mechanism for addressing issues."

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