Raul Castro at helm as Cuba takes reins of Non-aligned Movement

Cuba assumes leadership of the Non-aligned Movement Friday, as Raul Castro stands in for his brother Fidel, who officials say could make a brief appearance at the Havana summit.

Cuba assumed the leadership of the Non-aligned Movement on Friday, with acting Cuban leader Raul Castro standing in for his brother Fidel, who officials say could still make a brief appearance at the summit in Havana.

"We all wanted these inaugural words to be pronounced by President Fidel Castro, but for reasons we all know, he could not accompany us," Raul Castro said.

"Comrade Fidel has asked that I transmit to you his most cordial greetings."

Dozens of heads of state and diplomats from the 118 countries that make up the organization of mostly developing nations are in Havana for the summit, which opened on Monday.

Many had predicted Castro would use the summit to make his first public appearance since temporarily handing over power to his brother after gastrointestinal surgery more than a month and a half ago.

Fidel could appear: official

Cuba's Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, wouldn't completely rule out an appearance by Fidel Castro on Friday at one of three key events: a group photo, the opening of the summit's presidential session and a state dinner later in the evening.

The 80-year-old Castro, clad in dark pyjamas, did meet privately with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Thursday.

Photos from the meeting were published in the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde.

While Castro hasn't been seen in public since his surgery, periodic photos reportedly taken during his recovery have appeared in Cuban newspapers.

The Cuban government hasn't said what his surgery was for, calling it a state secret. Speculation has ranged from a minor condition to stomach cancer.

Raul praises Iran

Switching from his traditional army green fatigues to a dark suit, Raul Castro greeted dignitaries on Friday for the handover ceremony.

A day earlier, he represented Cuba for the first time as acting president during meetings at the summit.

The 75-year-old praised Iran and other developing nations for trying to create "a better, more just world."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel in past speeches, stayed clear of any inflammatory statements during his address.

He urged the NAM's member countries to work together on scientific and economic fronts so that "some countries" can't keep them in a "state of dependence."

Chavez offer support to Iran, Cuba

Chavez, aclose Cuban ally, has met with Castro several times since his surgery andvowed to support Iran and Cuba if they were ever attacked.

"Under any scenario, we are with you just like we are with Cuba," Chavez added. "If the United States invades Cuba, blood will run.... We will not have our arms crossed while bombs are falling in Havana or they carry Raul off in a plane."

Created in the 1960s, the NAM was formed to represent countries not allied with either the former Soviet Union or the U.S. Its critics say it is outdated with no purpose.

Meanwhile, theU.S. administration on Friday suggested Cubans should vote in a referendum on whether they wanted Raul Castro to be their leader.

Speaking in Miami, home to a large expatriot Cuban population, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Washington was ready to help if the Organization of American States organized the vote.

With files from the Associated Press.