Wed, May 21, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Crisis talks on Lebanon appear headed for failure

QATAR QUANDARYMediators hope an extra day will lead to a deal, but the opposition has rejected proposals on a unity government and changes to the electoral law

AGENCIES , DOHA

Qatari-led mediators gave Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led opposition a deadline of today to respond to proposals aimed at resolving a political crisis that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.

One of the two parties asked today for more time to respond” to two proposals put forward by the committee to break the political deadlock, Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Ahmed bin Abdullah al-Mahmud told reporters in Doha, where the talks were in their fifth day.

The committee, which is chaired by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani, “has agreed to give time until tomorrow,” Mahmud said.

He did not name the side that sought an extension, but a delegate of the Western-backed government said the extra time had been demanded by the Hezbollah-led opposition, which is supported by Iran and Syria.

The negotiations in Doha, which aim to prevent Lebanon sliding back into sectarian strife, follow the Arab League’s intervention last week to end the country’s worst domestic fighting since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

Mahmud said the Qatari prime minister put forward “two proposals for a solution to the leaders of the majority and the opposition,” but did not reveal either package.

We hope the two parties will reach agreement on one of these two proposals,” he said.

“We are not the party that asked for the postponement,” government minister Ahmed Fatfat told al Jazeera television.

Agreement on the election law and power sharing in Cabinet — where the opposition has demanded a veto — would pave the way for parliament to elect army chief General Michel Suleiman as president, a post that has been vacant since last November.

On Monday, the opposition rejected a proposal calling for postponement of talks on its calls for a new electoral law for parliamentary polls due next year while a new president is elected and a national unity government formed.

The rivals are also deadlocked over the electoral division of Beirut — the bedrock of support for Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim leader of the US-backed ruling coalition and close ally of Saudi Arabia.

The boundaries of electoral constituencies will help shape the outcome of next year’s elections.

Analysts said the mediators still held out hopes of success, but that their 24-hour deadline might simply be postponing failure.

“It seems the Arab committee sees itself halfway between both,” political columnist Abdel Wahab Badrakhan said. “For the first time in the conference the opposition finds itself cornered and having to respond clearly.”

The deadlock has worsened a crisis that erupted back in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora that has the support of Washington and Riyadh.

The 18-month-old deadlock erupted into sectarian fighting earlier this month that saw 65 people killed and during which Hezbollah and its Shiite allies briefly seized Sunni areas of mainly Muslim west Beirut.

Qatar has also proposed including a clause in the final statement of the talks requiring all sides to renounce any new resort to armed violence in internal disputes. Hezbollah was the only group not required to disarm after the civil war.

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