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French Version

Hizbullah sets date for peak of protests

Hizbullah said Friday that the opposition's successive protests will reach a climax before January 25 - the first time a date has been applied to the protesters' maneuvers.

Hizbullah MP Hussein Al Hajj Hassan, speaking at a union meeting in Baalbek, said: "Today we accept a national unity government. Soon we will only be satisfied with early parliamentary elections, come what may."

Reflecting the urgency of the situation, Speaker Nabih Berri described the political situation in Lebanon as "murky and cloudy," adding that he hoped "this time someone will listen in time."

Berri said the crisis would only "get bigger and much worse" if a solution was not found, urging all sides against waiting until "the storm hits."

In an attempt to revive the role of the legislature, MPs from the parliamentary majority submitted a petition to Parliament's General Secretariat Friday, calling for an extraordinary session to extend from January 1 to March 16.

Sources close to Berri told The Daily Star that President Emile Lahoud should have the petition in hand by early Saturday morning.

"The speaker is just a middle man and will not be commenting on the petition," the source said, adding that acceptance or rejection of the petition was up to Lahoud.

Future Movement MP Walid Eido said Berri would have to call for an extraordinary session upon the request of a majority of Parliament, adding that he did not believe Berri would hamper the role of Parliament.

Berri, speaking after meeting with a consular delegation at Ain al-Tineh, said the March 14 Forces have "refused to deal with Syria or the president. They even refused the Saudi initiative, so how can we continue in this way unless the intention is to push the country toward internal strife?"

Lebanon cannot be ruled by one group alone, he added, but only through consensus.

The speaker said the March 14 Forces had dismissed his latest initiative for dialogue "without reading it."

Progressive Socialist Party MP Akram Chehayeb said Parliament was the correct venue for politics, not public streets and squares. The March 14 Forces are still studying the possibility of having Deputy Speaker MP Farid Makari convene a session, he said.

"Today we not only speak in the name of the March 14 Forces, but in the name of the whole of Parliament," Eido said. "When the president or prime minister refuses to open

an extraordinary session of Parliament based on the majority's request, this is not just a breach of the Constitution but a stab at constitutional institutions and the Parliament."

A delegation of March 14 Forces MPs, including Eido, Chehayeb, Antoine Zahra and Antoine Ghanem, submitted the petition to Adnan Daher, secretary general of Parliament, on Friday.

Berri said that while no one was opposed to the Paris III international donor conference to be held later this month, the government's reform plan was another matter.

Comments had been made concerning the plan from all quarters, even from within the March 14 Forces, he said.

"The importance of discussing this paper in order to achieve the desired economic and social goals comes from this [wide-ranging discussion]," Berri said.

The Lebanese Forces said Friday that it was preparing a paper to submit to the government on the social program and tax component of the government's reform bill. The announcement followed a regular meeting of the bloc chaired by party leader Samir Geagea.

Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra said the LF and March 14 Forces have expressed their support for the opposition's right to express their opinion in a peaceful and democratic way, but that violating other people's rights or interests was not acceptable.

Responding to questions concerning the opposition's threat to close Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport as of January 20, Zahra said: "They may burn a few tires, but the airport will never close."

Meanwhile, the government remained confident the donor conference would proceed as scheduled despite the political crisis and opposition to the reform bill.

On the eve of a regional tour to kick off with a visit to Egypt, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora met Friday with French Ambassador Bernard Emie for talks on political developments and preparations for Paris III.

Siniora also met with ambassadors of several Arab countries with whom he discussed political developments in the country and the importance of the donor conference to the recovery of the Lebanese economy.

Parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri will be heading to Paris on Saturday for a meeting with President Jacques Chirac to discuss the deadlock in Lebanon and preparations for Paris III.

President Emile Lahoud, speaking to Arab and American researchers who visited Baabda Palace Friday, said the "defeat" of the Israeli Army following its invasion of Lebanon last summer proved that "there can be no military solution to the Middle East crisis and that the alternative has to be for all parties to sit at the table and discuss all issues, similar to what happened at Madrid," referring to the Madrid Conference of 1991.

Lahoud said the opportunity still exists for an Arab and international initiative to hold a conference similar to the Madrid conference, but stressed that such a development depended on all parties taking advantage of this opportunity.

Lahoud reiterated his belief that the Siniora government "no longer exists" and is unconstitutional, thus making any sessions held or decisions taken by the Cabinet "null and void."

In comments highly critical of the 2006 memorandum of understanding between the Free Patriotic Movement and Hizbullah, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch recommended MP Michel Aoun closely examine the consequences of his partnership.

Welch, speaking via satellite on LBCI's Kalam al-Nass, said he believed the opposition was not united. "We do not understand the general Aoun's position. [Aoun] supported a party which has a militia that fought a war in the summer," Welch said Thursday evening.

However, the US official urged rival political parties to resume "democratic talks" on the future of the country.

Beirut 14-01-2007
Hani M. Bathish
The Daily Star

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