CAIRO — An Islamic summit that opened in Egypt on Wednesday lay bare the multiple divisions within the Muslim and Arab worlds, with conflicting approaches to the Syrian civil war exposing the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian fault lines that have torn the region for years.
Egypt’s Islamist leader sharply criticized President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime in his address to the two-day summit, though he hedged his comments by only making an indirect call for the Syrian leader to step down.
The Syrian government ‘‘must read history and grasp its immortal message: It is the people who remain and those who put their personal interests before those of their people will inevitably go,’’ Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said.
The conflict in Syria has been deeply divisive in the Middle East, pitting a largely Sunni opposition against a regime dominated by Assad’s Alawite minority — a heterodox offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Sunni nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have thrown their weight behind the rebels, while Shi’ite heavyweight Iran is Syria’s closest regional ally.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shi’ite-led government has been ambivalent about the Syrian conflict, offered a more cautious approach. In power for nearly seven years, Maliki is believed to be worried that his grip on power could weaken if the Sunni majority in neighboring Syria succeeds in overthrowing Assad and a new Sunni leadership takes power in Damascus.
Maliki faces a wave of protests against his rule in Iraq’s Sunni provinces and has had to fight Sunni extremists linked to Al Qaeda for most of his time in office.
‘‘Syria suffers from violence, killings, and sabotage,’’ he said and called on the summit to ‘‘find an exit and peaceful solution for its conflict.’’ He called on member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the summit’s organizer, to unite against terror, suggesting that he, like the regime in Damascus, views the rebels fighting the Syrian regime as terrorists.
At least 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, where the rebel side is heavy on Muslim militants, many of them linked to Al Qaeda. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced, and many of them have found refuge in neighboring nations Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Later on Wednesday, another Syria-related event reflected the divisive impact of the conflict there.
Saudi Arabia stayed out of a gathering of Morsi and the presidents of Turkey and Iran on the sidelines of the summit to discuss Syria. Saudi Crown Prince Salman, who was heading his country’s delegation to the OIC summit, left Egypt just before the mini-summit was held. Morsi has been trying to form a working group of the four countries to address the Syria crisis. But Saudi Arabia has only attended the ‘‘quartet’s’’ first meeting several months ago.
Egyptian officials insist that the Saudis have not pulled out, and an Egyptian presidential spokesman said Salman left because of other, personal engagements. The Saudi foreign minister stayed to attend the OIC summit.
But it is widely suspected that the kingdom has quit the group because they could not see the point of working with Iran, Assad’s most ardent backer, to resolve the conflict there.
Morsi has worked for a thaw in ties with Iran, with which Egypt cut ties following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Egyptian leader gave a warm welcome Tuesday to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upon his arrival in Cairo for the summit.
In a sign of Tehran’s hopes for better relations, Ahmadinejad offered to provide Egypt with ‘‘a big credit line’’ to help salvage the country’s faltering economy. ‘‘If the two peoples cooperate and join forces, they can become an important element,’’ Ahmadinejad told the state-run Al-Ahram daily.
Egypt’s government had no immediate reaction to Ahmadinejad’s offer