Sat, May 17, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Lebanese leaders join Qatar-brokered talks

AFP , DOHA

Lebanon’s squabbling political leaders were to meet in Qatar yesterday for talks brokered by the Arab League aimed at ending a long-running feud that drove the country to the brink of a new civil war.

After nearly a week of fighting that left 65 people dead and some 200 wounded, the US-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition agreed to a new national dialogue to elect a president and form a unity government.

A six-point plan was agreed in Beirut on Thursday, under the mediation of an Arab League delegation headed by Qatar’s prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani.

Under the deal, the rivals undertook to launch a dialogue “to shore up the authority of the Lebanese state throughout the country,” to refrain from using weapons to further political aims and to remove militants from the streets.

It also called for the removal of all roadblocks that have paralyzed air traffic and closed major highways, and for the rivals to refrain from using language that could incite violence.

In the biggest challenge yet to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, fighters from the Iranian-backed opposition rose up against pro-government forces last week, taking over swathes of west Beirut in the worst sectarian violence since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

Hopes of a deal were raised on Wednesday after the government — in a major climbdown — canceled controversial measures against Hezbollah that had triggered the unrest.

It rescinded plans to probe a private Hezbollah telecommunications network and reassign the head of airport security over allegations he was close to the powerful Shiite militant group, moves Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah had branded a declaration of war.

Parliament in Beirut is scheduled to convene on June 10 for its 20th attempt to elect a president. Damascus protege Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term in November, exacerbating a crisis that began in late 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit Siniora’s cabinet.

Both sides agree on army chief Michel Sleiman as Lahoud’s successor, but they remain at odds over the details of a proposed unity government and a new law for parliamentary polls due next year.

Thursday’s announcement said that the Doha dialogue would be crowned by an end — on the eve of any election of Sleiman — to a long-running opposition sit-in that has left the heart of downtown Beirut a virtual ghost-town.

Despite Thursday’s renewed optimism, analysts said the government U-turn over Hezbollah had weakened Siniora’s administration and was a slap in the face for US allies in Lebanon.

“This climbdown is a major retreat, not only for the government but the US agenda in Lebanon,” political analyst and expert on Hezbollah Amal Saad-Ghorayeb said. “It ... basically shows that force is the only way of dealing with the government.”

The latest developments coincide with a visit to the region by US President George W. Bush, who has accused Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian allies of setting out to destabilize Israel’s northern neighbor.

“Hezbollah, the so-called protector of the Lebanese against Israel, has now turned on its own people,” Bush said. “Hezbollah is supported by Iran, and it’s an Iranian effort to destablize Lebanon’s democracy, and the United States stands strongly with the Siniora government.”

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