Parliamentary elections last month brought a strong showing for Ahmadinejad's opponents, including Ali Larijani, his former top nuclear negotiator and now leading rival, who became speaker of the parliament. Iranian presidential elections are scheduled for 2009.
Mugabe announced his intention to attend the summit only at the last moment, and his presence brought the usual media frenzy. Security officials pushed and shoved camera crews as the 84-year-old arrived at his hotel in Rome.
Zimbabwe is suffering an enormous food crisis that many say stems not from climatic conditions but from government policies. Once the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe is currently host to a starving population.
Mugabe defended his land redistribution program that began a decade ago, in which land owned by 4,000 mostly white farmers was redistributed to some 300,000 supporters of the president. He blasted the United Kingdom for an orchestrated campaign against the policy which Mugabe said was leading to an illegal "regime change" in his country. He accused non-governmental organizations of channeling money to the opposition. In short, he maintains that the agriculture crisis gripping his country is part of a sinister plot of the West.
But the fact remains that most of the former farmland is now small, unproductive plots. Massive corruption, political instability and economic mismanagement have caused 1,000 percent or more inflation. Zimbabwe dollars are printed with expiration dates on them because they lose value so quickly. The hyperinflation means the value of the money keeps falling, making durable goods out of the reach of most families. In Zimbabwe in March, ABC News saw large grocery stores with shelves empty.
The recent elections meant that for the first time the parliament in Harare will be controlled by opposition parties, but the presidential election was forced to a second round despite claims that Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition, won the vote. The runoff is scheduled for later this month, but the campaign is clouded by violence, a lack of a free press, and the accusation today from the president of meddling by Western governments.
The Vatican sent a message of concern to the conference participants, but the pope's spokesman has confirmed that the pope will not be receiving any of the heads of state who will be in Rome over the next three days because there are "too many requests and too little time." This perhaps gets the Vatican out of the uncomfortable situation of having to receive leaders such as Ahmadinejad and Mugabe, though the Vatican is saying it is policy not to receive leaders who are in town for big conferences.
Despite closed streets, hovering helicopters and a heavy police presence, most Italians are taking little notice of the international gathering. Protests against Ahmadinejad have been called for at Rome's city hall, but demonstrations at the meeting by anti-globalization forces have been small.
Ann Wise and Phoebe Natanson contributed to this report