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Foreign ministers at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) agreed on Monday to suspend Syria from the international body, an OIC source said, further isolating President Bashar al-Assad. "The session just ended. The ministers adopted the resolutions, including the suspension of Syria," the source told Reuters.

The move by the OIC, a body comprising 56 member states plus the Palestinian Authority that aims to represent Muslim interests on the world stage, is its response to Assad's suppression of a 17-month uprising. It will have more symbolic than practical implications for the Assad government which has never put emphasis on religion and which will continue to enjoy support from Iran which opposed the decision to suspend Syria at the OIC.

"By suspending membership, this does not mean that you are moving toward resolving an issue. This means that you are erasing the issue. We want to really resolve the issue," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters before the meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The ministers were holding preparatory talks before a two-day OIC summit in Makkah starting on Tuesday where heads of government will take the formal decision on Syria, probably on Wednesday. Salehi's comments pointed towards a likely diplomatic showdown in Makkah between Sunni Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, that have declared support for Assad's opponents, and Iran - a reflection of heightened sectarian tensions across the region.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Makkah on Monday echoing King Abdullah's call for the summit to increase Muslim unity, saying before his departure that it was a chance for his country's viewpoint to be "explained transparently".

However, Iran has also pushed for the summit to address the continued uprising in Bahrain, where some Saudi troops went last year at the invitation of the Sunni monarchy to help quell mass protests by the tiny island state's Shia majority. King Abdullah's decision to invite Ahmadinejad to the Makkah summit drew rare criticism in Saudi-owned media on Monday, with an editorial in the kingdom's edition of pan-Arab daily al-Hayat saying it would "add only schism and division to the summit".

Saudi Arabia has called for the Syrian people to be "enabled to protect themselves" if the world powers cannot protect them. Riyadh is worried that the crisis will further inflame the sectarian violence in Bahrain as well as other countries with large Shia communities.

Late on Sunday, Salehi said the resignation of Kofi Annan as the joint UN and Arab League envoy to Syria last week did not spell the end of Annan's six-point plan to end the crisis. Salehi said Iran was opposed to the imposition of an internationally enforced no-fly zone over Syria, which Syrian rebels have called for to curb the ability of Assad's air power to restrict rebel movements. "Kofi Annan's plan in Syria is just as alive and I'm not sure who will come after him but I imagine he will work along the same suggested guidelines, the six points," he said in Arabic. "We are against any foreign interference of any kind in Syria, including a no-fly zone."

Copyright Reuters, 2012

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