In a new move to force a postponement of next week's Arab summit here, Syria today proposed a series of smaller meetings among Arab leaders to resolve the deep divisions in Arab ranks and protect the image of unity the summit is intended to project.

The Syrian proposal -- which was immediately rejected by rival Iraq -- was made by Foreign Minister Abdel-Halim Khaddam at the opening session of a plenary meeting of Arab foreign ministers gathered here to try to work out an agenda for the long-planned summit of Arab kings, sheiks and presidents scheduled to open Tuesday.

The Syrian suggestion was made after an impassioned opening speech by Farouk Kaddoumi, the foreigh policy chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who urged the Arabs to "unite as one" lest their internal disputes and rivalries sabotage "all we have started, all we have built, all we have gained."

Syrian President Hafez Assad has demanded that the summit be postponed because of the disputes among Arabs -- including his own with neighboring Iraq over its war with Iran, which Syria has backed.

To hold the summit before these differences are resolved, Assad maintains, would undermine and weaken the summit's plan to formulate a united Arab political and economic front and to build a strategy for the region's foreign and economic policies in the coming decade.

Assad has threatened to boycott the summit if it is not postponed, an act that if followed by his Syria's allies in the "Steadfastness Front" -- South Yemen, Libya, Algeria and the PLO -- would diminish the significance and importance of the summit and its eventual decisions.

Debate on the Syrian proposal today was put off until Saturday morning although various conference participants said that it would most likely be rejected. Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have formed a dominant moderate alliance here that has been insisting on carrying through with the conference. Tonight's rejection of the Syrian proposal by Iraq came after Iraqi Foreign Minister Saddoun Hammadi held a surprise 15-minute private meeting with Khaddam to try to find a compromise.

Hammadi told journalists later that the fact that there were disputes among Arabs was hardly an excuse for postponing the summit, which is surposed to be an institutionalized annual event. In fact, he said, "the summit provides an occasion and means to discuss and resolve Arab differences."

Hammadi has said privately that he has no intention of bringing up the issue of this country's two-month-old war with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran. It is that war that has divided the Arab nations as they have not been divided by a bilateral dispute in more than a decade.

Syria, a perennial rival and antagonist of its neighbor Iraq, with whom it shares a similar socialist ideology, has openly supported Iran in the war. Iran's other major ally is Libya, which only two months ago negotiated a still unconsummated "merger" with Syria.

Syrian and Libyan support of Iran have as much to do with their fear of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's growing military power and political influence in the Arab world as it does with any deep affection for the unpredictable Islamic revolutionaries in non-Arab Iran.

Arab analysts here say that Syrian President Assad, who is already isolated in much of the Arab world and faces growing economic problems and internal dissent, does not want to attend the summit lest he be embarrassed by the issue of his support of non-Arab regime fighting in Arab regime.

According to Arab conference sources, both Algeria and the PLO were trying to moderate Syria's adamant stand against the summit, without breaking with their ally. Their arguments are that the summit's plan to adopt a region-wide political and economic strategy far outweighs the danger of the Syrian-Iraqi dispute erupting into an angry shouting match.

The strongest argument for Syrian and PLO participation in the summit is money. The summit is expected to review, and probably raise, the huge financial subsidies being paid by the oil-rich Arab states to the nations suffering most from the continuing confrontation with Israel.

Since the Baghdad summit two years ago, Syria receives $1.8 billion a year from fellow Arab states, Jordan $1.2 billion and the PLO $300 million, half of which is for distribution on the occupied West Bank.