|Arab League committee in Lebanon
|Time is running out for rival Lebanese factions to resolve their worst political dispute since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said on Wednesday.
The crisis has paralysed normal government in Lebanon since November when ministers allied to Syria quit the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has the backing of the United States, France and U.S.-allied Arab states.
"Time is running out," Moussa told reporters when asked whether priority should go to resolving the dispute over the cabinet or seeking agreement on a candidate to replace President Emile Lahoud, a close Damascus ally whose term ends in November. "There's no point in talking about priorities. The time for talking about priorities was when we had years in front of us. Now we have just three or four months," Moussa said.
The standoff has created tension between Sunni Muslims who support Siniora and Shi'ite Muslims who back the opposition, largely controlled by Shi'ite groups Hezbollah and Amal.
The crisis, which has at times spilled into lethal street violence, is linked to a regional power struggle between the United States and its Arab allies on one hand and Iran and Syria on the other. That is complicating mediation efforts.
"Naturally, difficulties still exist," said Moussa, who arrived in Beirut on Tuesday to meet the rival Lebanese. "The situation in the whole region in general is difficult," he said after meeting Lahoud.
Lahoud and the opposition, including Christian leader Michel Aoun, dispute the legitimacy of the Siniora government because of the resignation of all its Shi'ite ministers.
Official posts in Lebanon are split along sectarian lines to ensure representation for an array of religious communities.
Politicians have warned that Lahoud might appoint a new cabinet if the crisis is not resolved. But the president told the Arab League delegation he wanted a national unity government, official sources at the presidential palace said.
"The formation of a second cabinet is out of the question, given that the experience of two governments in the past was not in Lebanon's interest," Lahoud said, according to the sources.
Lebanon had two cabinets between 1988 and 1990, towards the end of the civil war, one of them led by Aoun.