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French Version

Siniora ignores opposition objection, schedules Cabinet meet for Saturday

Sabaa returns in time for controversial session on hariri tribunal

Lebanon's Cabinet is to meet Saturday to approve the UN statutes for the creation of an international court to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a move pro-Syrian parties say should not take place while they are not represented in the government.

The draft requires approval by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government and pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud before being forwarded to Parliament for a final vote.

Speaker Nabih Berri will now play a key role in the UN blueprint's progress as only he can put the related legislation on Parliament's agenda once the Cabinet has renewed its approval of it.

However, Berri has stated publicly that all decisions taken by Siniora's Cabinet since six pro-Syrian ministers resigned are "unconstitutional."

Down to just 17 ministers from the 24 it started with, the Cabinet barely had the two-thirds plus one required for the quorum necessary to pass decisions and remain in office.

However, Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa, who had quit Cabinet in February over an unrelated dispute, officially retracted his resignation and resumed his duties on Friday, bolstering the majority's control of the government. Ahmed Fatfat, who had served as acting interior minister, returned to the sports and youth portfolio.

Berri had also defined as "unconstitutional" Siniora's November 13 decision to submit the draft to the UN Security Council for endorsement.

"Any [Cabinet] session held now is unconstitutional because it would be in breach of Lebanon's national pact," he said last week, referring to the unwritten arrangement providing for all of the country's religious groups to be represented in government.

As-Safir newspaper quoted sources close to the speaker Friday as saying "he was surprised by Siniora's decision" to convene a Cabinet session Saturday.

The premier had announced the session Thursday night during a news conference in which he also urged all resigned ministers to return to their duties and the resumption of national talks.

Former Prime Minister Salim Hoss urged Siniora to postpone the session amid increased tensions between the pro- and anti-Syrian camps.

"We urge the prime minister, for the sake of national unity, not to insist on holding the session tomorrow since he knows many Lebanese question the legitimacy of his Cabinet," Hoss said in a statement on Friday.

Hoss added that, according to the Constitution, it is illegal to sign any agreement with the UN unless both the president and the prime minister endorse it and a Parliament session is called, "which might be impossible to call if the speaker doubts the constitutionality of the move."

The government's supporters argue that the Constitution gives ministers the authority to override the president if he refuses to ratify a treaty agreed by both the Cabinet and Parliament twice in the space of one month.

Lahoud will not head Saturday's session, he said in a statement Friday, reiterating that the resignation of all five Shiite ministers makes any meeting of the government unconstitutional.

However, seeming to break ranks from the Hizbullah-aligned Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), an MP from the Reform and Change parliamentary bloc urged the resigned ministers to return to their duties in order for Cabinet to pass the draft.

"We urge the resigned ministers and ... Lahoud to participate in the session in order to approve the international tribunal," Neamatallah Abi Nasr said after meeting with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir Friday.

FPM leader MP Michel Aoun said Nasr has expressed a "personal opinion," but hoped it would help resolve the crisis.

The Cabinet session comes two days after Lebanon laid to rest Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel in a mass funeral that turned into a political rally against Syria and its allies in Lebanon, blamed for a series of killings since Hariri's death.

Hours after Gemayel was killed on Tuesday, the Security Council approved the draft, which gives the tribunal jurisdiction over several assassinations and attempts deemed to be linked to Hariri's murder.

Beirut 25-11-2006
The Daily Star

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