|Siniora optimistic talks will lead to consensus
|Cabinet approves 2008 budget
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora says Lebanon has arrived at a crucial phase in the presidential election process and all Lebanese hope the vote will take place without incident and that the country will have a president and a government in line with the Constitution.
Siniora headed an eight-hour Cabinet meeting on Saturday which approved the 2008 draft budget and its attendant legislation. Parliament has not passed the 2006 and 2007 budgets primarily because of the summer 2006 war with Israel and the ensuing political crisis. Budgets have to be passed by a majority of two-thirds in Parliament before becoming law.
Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said the Cabinet reiterated its determination to work until the last minute of its mandate, as it had accomplished a great deal under the toughest of conditions and pushed through several laws that confirmed its reformist credentials.
Siniora stressed that internal Lebanese affairs should be free of external interference, the presidential election should proceed on schedule and MPs should not boycott the legislature's electoral session. He said he hoped the ongoing political consultations would lead to a consensus successor to outgoing President Emile Lahoud.
Aridi said Syria's response to the latest UN report on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 was not "as we would have wanted." Ahead of the report, Siniora had addressed a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon regarding the three-month battle in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp and the proliferation of armed groups in the country, implicating Syria in both developments. Despite these accusations, the prime minister on Saturday reaffirmed Lebanon's desire for an honest and good relationship with Syria.
Aridi also condemned what he said was an orchestrated mudslinging campaign aimed at Saudi Arabia. "We must not insult those who help us," Aridi said. "The Arab countries - foremost among them Saudi Arabia - have stood by Lebanon when we were under Israeli attack and on other occasions. We still need their help to erase the impact of Israeli aggression, rebuild and preserve financial stability."
The Cabinet approved lending $12.15 million to the Justice Ministry to pay Lebanon's share of the first-year costs of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to try suspects in the slaying of former Premier Rafik Hariri and others.
Aridi, responding to reporters' questions on Hizbullah's private telephone network, said a large chunk of the network, set up illegally in Beirut and elsewhere, had been removed. "There are still some lines that have not been cut and there are still violations. Thus the Cabinet stressed that the security forces and concerned ministries will continue to work to resolve this matter completely, not only in Beirut but in all parts of the country," Aridi said.
Aridi said Siniora also discussed the catastrophic impact on the environment of recent fires that ravaged many areas of the country. The Cabinet praised the Lebanese Army, Civil Defense and local inhabitants for their efforts to fight the blazes, he said, adding that work was proceeding on a plan to control the impact of the fires. A committee made up of the concerned ministries and civil-society organizations will draw up the plan, he added. Aridi said that the prime ministers of France and Greece promised technical assistance to help in reforesting the devastated areas.
Aridi said Siniora dispatched his adviser Ridwan al-Sayed to Nasrallah Butros Sfeir to brief the Maronite patriarch on the outcome of talks he had held with Arab and foreign officials.
The Cabinet also discussed economic issues and the recent spike in the prices of commodities. Economy Minister Sami Haddad attributed the high prices to international developments and the rise of oil and grain prices on the world market.
The Daily Star