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French Version

Welch puts onus on Berri to resolve crisis by convening presidential vote

Speaker says envoy should instead pressure 'those who obey him'

A senior US envoy pressured Speaker Nabih Berri on Tuesday to convene a session of Parliament in Beirut and elect a new president to end a three-week power vacuum.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch made the remarks after separate talks with parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on his second visit to Beirut in four days.

Welch met Hariri and other Lebanese politicians on the weekend to help spur a much-delayed election, amid a tug-of-war between the Western-backed majority and the opposition, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

"The speaker of Parliament must assume his constitutional responsibilities and a leadership role ... and allow Parliament to meet and to vote," Welch said after talks with Siniora.

"Parliament needs to function," he added.

On Monday, a ninth parliamentary session to elect a new president was postponed amid further bickering, with a new date set for Saturday.

The country has been without a president since the term of Emile Lahoud expired at midnight on November 23.

The majority and the opposition have agreed in principle to elect the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), General Michel Suleiman, to replace Lahoud but remain at odds on how to amend the Constitution to allow a senior public servant to become president, on who would lead a new government and on how many Cabinet seats each camp would get.

MPs "should elect a president without conditions and without any further delay," Welch said after an hour of talks with Hariri.

Welch expressed "alarm and disappointment" at the impasse, reiterating a statement issued in Paris on Monday by representatives of nine Western and Arab countries, and the UN.

He said he was asked to return to Beirut by US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to state that the international community is "concerned over the prolonged political crisis."

Welch blamed the opposition, as well as foreign parties- a veiled reference to Syria - of blocking efforts to find a successor to Lahoud.

"This destructive behavior should cease," he said.

Berri, a member of the opposition, retorted in a statement released by his office later on Tuesday.

"Speaker Berri knows very well his responsibilities and hopes that others know theirs' too," the statement said. "Welch should put pressure on those who listen to him and obey him so that they, too, shoulder their responsibilities."

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun also blamed the US and the government for the escalating deadlock.

Speaking during an interview with al-Jazeera on Tuesday Aoun said he would relinquish his demand for having the opposition acquire a "blocking third" share in the next government, "provided that the president receives a balancing share."

The ruling coalition refused to give the opposition one-third of the next Cabinet's seats, advancing the argument that the president is allowed a certain number of seats.

"However," he added, " I will only endorse this option if the majority gives me a written consent that the president will be granted a balancing share ... even if this is done through a constitutional amendment."

Also Tuesday, Siniora said the Constitution was being violated and the Taif Accords eroded.

"Foreign interference in Lebanon, especially from its neighbors, is playing a major role in obstructing the election," Siniora said during a book-signing ceremony at the Grand Serail.

He also said recent political rhetoric was disappointing.

"All we hear is divisive statements... all aiming to dismantle the Lebanese political system under the pretext of power sharing," he added.

In other developments, the LAF Command issued a statement on Tuesday denying rumors that the military is involved in the current political conflict.

The LAF said it is not concerned with the constitutional debate over the presidential elections or the media campaign covering them.

"The military's stand is bound by national principles and not personal politics," the statement said.

Western and Arab nations, along with the United Nations and the European Union, urged the Lebanese Parliament Monday to end a weeks-long political crisis by electing a new president without delay.

"We share deep concern at the prolonged political crisis in Lebanon; we reiterate our call for unconditional Lebanese presidential elections without any further delay. In this regard, we urge that Parliament be allowed to convene immediately to fulfill its constitutional duties," said the statement.

Beirut 20-12-2007
The Daily Star

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