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French Version

Berri accuses ruling coalition of trying to 'end the dialogue'

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora dismissed allegations of hindrance and ulterior motives on Tuesday by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who lashed out at the ruling coalition for "hampering efforts to reach a settlement" between Berri and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri.

"There were false statement and mistakes," Siniora said in a statement. "Despite the various accusations made, we are willing to move forward and continue dialogue ... It is now time for dialogue and discussion, not accusations and excuses."

The statement came in response to accusations made earlier by Berri that the only obstacle to a nearly four-month-old deadlock in forming a new national unity government based on a 19+11 formula, a demand repeatedly rejected by the majority, was the majority itself.

"Their objective is to end the dialogue," Berri told reporters during a news conference held at his Ain al-Tineh residence.

The news conference was held as 45 pro-government MPs rallied outside Parliament to call for the convening of the spring session and a vote on the formation of an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri and others.

"As long as their aim is to terminate the dialogue ... my answer is continuation of dialogue," Berri said.

Berri reiterated that he was "not obliged" to convene Parliament, and provided several examples of instances in the past 15 years that he has served as speaker in which he did not open the spring session on the first Tuesday after March 15, as stipulated in the Constitution.

"It is possible for me to convene a ... session. And if they had not done this act today, I would have called the session sooner," he said, referring to the gathering of pro-government MPs. "But now I want to call it later."

Berri said that, contrary to media reports, progress had been made during his talks with Saad Hariri over the past two weeks. He said one of the agreed points was the forming of a bipartisan committee to draft the specifics of the international court so that the Lebanese leaders who met during the National Dialogue can meet in Saudi Arabia and sign an agreement on the tribunal. "Once that happens I will convene Parliament immediately and have [the agreement] ratified," he said.

Berri blamed the March 14 Forces and Siniora for insisting on pushing the tribunal through at any cost, which he said "led to a crushing blow to the talks between me and Hariri."

"What we could have settled in a matter of days has now fallen apart," he added. Berri said he had not closed the door on further talks, saying "the arm is extended to rescue Lebanon."

Berri, a senior member of the opposition, is pushing for a third plus one of any new unity government and the calling of early parliamentary elections.

Opposition supporters have been camped near the Grand Serail in Beirut since December 1 to press their demands.

Though he did not rule out the possibility that the opposition could escalate its campaign of civil disobedience, Berri said dialogue was the only way to resolve the standoff.

"I will negotiate with anyone, without exception. If I find anything ... which I can use to rescue the talks, I will continue. We have no other option but to negotiate," he added.

Hizbullah's number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said the "main goal" of the sit-in was to tell the world that Lebanon "is in trouble." Rather than intending to "paralyze" Lebanon, Qassem said that "the sit-in is meant to denounce all attempts to paralyze Lebanon on the political, social and economic levels."

The demonstration will continue "until our demands of true partnership and of a national unity government are fulfilled," he added.

In the first of many statements on the news conference held by the speaker, Saudi Ambassador Abdel-Aziz Khoja described Berri's comments as "sensible."

"Speaker Berri's speech clarified matters and did not attack anyone," he said. The ruling coalition should consider Berri's comments an "invitation for dialogue among conflicting groups," Khoja added.

The head of the Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc, MP Mohammad Raad, also had praise for the speaker, saying that Berri was a "courageous statesman willing to assume his responsibilities fully."

"Despite ruthless rumor campaigns directed toward him, Speaker Berri ensured that his comments remain moderate," he added.

Raad said Berri had revealed to all Lebanese that the ruling majority "despised any form of partnership," and that the international court was "not the essence of the current crisis but a mere pretext to keep the deadlock dragging."

In another development, MP Walid Jumblatt postponed a news conference that had been scheduled for Wednesday. The Democratic Gathering parliamentary bloc held a 90-minute meeting at Jumblatt's Clemenceau residence on Tuesday.

Sources close to the meeting said it had focused on Berri's news conference and the speaker's contention that he would not convene Parliament as long as an "illegal" government remained in power. The sources added that the bloc saw Berri's comments as being "loaded with threats" and calling for an "escalation instead of a truce."

The sources said the meeting also discussed the establishment of a "Lebanese-administered" international tribunal and that the attendees agreed to have the tribunal formed "under any circumstances."

Beirut 21-03-2007
The Daily Star

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