Feuding Lebanese factions holding the highest-level talks yet in their country’s 18-month political crisis traded accusations yesterday and a government official said almost no progress has been made in discussions between the US-backed government and Hezbollah-led opposition.
Hezbollah’s chief negotiator, Mohammed Raad, accused the government of trying to “blackmail” the opposition by bringing the subject of Hezbollah’s weapons up in the talks being held in the Qatari capital, Doha.
“No one opens the door to a debate about” Hezbollah’s arms,” Raad told the Iranian-backed group’s private Al-Manar Television, adding that the group’s “weapons and capabilities are beyond any discussion” and were not supposed to be on the table in Doha.
However, a member of the pro-government team at the talks said no political deal in Doha was possible without “serious progress” on the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons.
The Lebanese need “reassurances” the militants’ would not again “turn on the people” as they did last week, he said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said almost no progress had been made and that the talks were “still at the beginning.”
The Qatar-hosted talks are meant to help the Lebanese form a national unity government and elect a compromise presidential candidate. Lebanon has had no president since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud’s term ended last November.
The talks follow Lebanon’s worst violence since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.
They are the first time top leaders from the Lebanese sides came face-to-face since November 2006.
Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush asked the world to help the US-backed government in Lebanon at a time of crisis and challenge from Hezbollah — backed by Syria and Iran — saying in remarks prepared for a speech in Egypt yesterday that “it is now clearer than ever that Hezbollah militias are the enemy of a free Lebanon and all nations.”
The two Lebanese sides flew to Qatar on Friday, following a deal mediated by the Arab League that brought an end to a week of violence between Hezbollah’s Shiite supporters and pro-government militiamen in Beirut, northern Lebanon and the central mountains.
Clashes left 67 people dead and wounded more than 200.
On Saturday, when the talks started, the government challenged the Hezbollah-led opposition by demanding Doha talks also tackle the group’s menacing arsenal.
Hezbollah refused, saying its arms were meant for a fight with Israel.
The pro-government official said Arab mediators were trying yesterday to reconcile the government and opposition views on power sharing in a future government.
A separate committee made up of the two sides was working on fine-tuning the text of a new election law.
Raad said the pro-government group was seeking to cast itself as a “victim” of the recent fighting and that government efforts at “blackmailing will lead nowhere” in Doha. He said 14 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the latest clashes.
The violence was triggered by government measures to rein in Hezbollah. It eventually forced the government to revoke the measures, giving Hezbollah an upper hand in the standoff.
Washington and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s faction have accused Iran and Syria of seeking to undermine the Lebanese government and Middle East stability, while Hezbollah accuses the prime minister and his allies in the anti-Syrian coalition of being the US’ servants.