Lebanon's squabbling political leaders gathered in Qatar on Friday for Arab-brokered talks aimed at ending a long-running feud that drove their country to the brink of a new civil war.
After 65 people were killed in nearly a week of fighting, the Beirut government and the Hezbollah-led opposition agreed to a national dialogue aimed at electing a president and forming a unity government.
In Doha on Friday they gathered in a luxury hotel for an opening session chaired by Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who then adjourned the meeting until the first round of talks proper yesterday.
As US President George W. Bush visited Saudi Arabia, Washington expressed its support for the Doha talks and vowed not to interfere.
“We are pleased that there is now a process, that the fighting in the streets have [sic] stopped,” a senior US State Department official said, requesting anonymity.
“What we are doing is making it clear first of all that we do support this process because there are a lot of people who would like to say that we don’t,” he said.
“We are in touch with Lebanese from across the political spectrum … to note that we are supporting this process, that we will be helpful but not interfering with this process,” the official said.
In an address to the politicians, the emir stressed the need to preserve unity and said he hoped the rivals would reach an agreement.
The two sides in the political conflict met after Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and parliament majority leader Saad Hariri flew into Qatar on a private plane.
Christian leader Samir Geagea, former president Amin Gemayel and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt of the ruling coalition arrived separately on a Qatari aircraft that also brought opposition member and parliament speaker Nabih Berri and his ally Christian leader Michel Aoun.
The head of the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, did not travel to Qatar, apparently for security reasons and was represented by Hezbollah member of parliament Mohammed Raad instead.
“These are early days. It’s just the first meeting,” Geagea told reporters after the adjournment.
The feuding politicians agreed on Thursday to launch a dialogue as part of a six-point plan, following Arab League mediation led by Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani.
Under the deal the rivals undertook “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.