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French Version

Gap widens as March 8, March 14 find new way to disagree on old issue

Suleiman says he's ready to back any consensus candidate

Efforts to resolve Lebanon's tangled political crisis showed no sign of success on Tuesday as members of the ruling March 14 Forces coalition and their March 8 opposition rivals continued to offer very different versions of what transpired during talks chaired by Arab League chief Amr Moussa last week.

Signs also emerged that the impasse may actually be getting worse, threatening to undo the one element on which both sides agree - that of electing the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman, as a consensus president.

The office has been empty since Emile Lahoud's term, extended under Syrian pressure in 2004, expired at midnight on November 23, 2007, and filling it is the first item in a three-point Arab League proposal. The others are the creation of a national unity government and the promulgation of a new parliamentary election law.

Last Friday Moussa brokered talks between former President Amin Gemayel and parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri, representing March 14, and Reform and Change bloc leader MP Michel Aoun, representing the opposition.

Afterward, March 14 politicians accused Aoun of having rejected the so-called "10+10+10 formula" for a Cabinet in which each of the majority, the opposition and the president would control 10 seats.

Aoun offered a very different version of events, insisting that Hariri had rejected the formula after initially proposing during Friday's negotiations.

In a telephone interview with The Daily Star on Tuesday, however, Gemayel spokesman Salim Sayegh insisted that at "no point" had March 14 accepted 10+10+10, which he described as an opposition proposal introduced by Speaker Nabih Berri.

"We merely said during the meeting: 'What if we accept the 10+10+10 formula, would you ... go ahead with electing Suleiman?'" Sayegh said, adding that Aoun's response was to reiterate his "basket of conditions."

Change and Reform MP Michel Murr, a powerful moderate whose son Elias serves as defense minister in the March 14 government, told reporters Tuesday that the 10+10+10 plan was offered as "a solution that would please everyone" and a means to overcome the many obstacles to accord.

"The majority was about to declare its acceptance of this formula, while the opposition did not reject it outright," the MP said. "The opposition raised some points and had a few objections. Otherwise the presidential election [in Parliament] could have been held Monday."

Berri had offered to hold the poll if March 14 agreed to the 10+10+10 formula, going so far as to promise that he could guarantee a quorum of 92 MPs even if some opposition members stayed away, but Gemayel's spokesman denied that this had been a serious proposal.

"Aoun represents all the opposition and speaks in their name," Sayegh told The Daily Star. "We did not get any signal that the opposition would accept holding elections."

Also Tuesday, the Central News Agency (CNA) reported that diplomatic contacts are continuing to pave the way for Moussa's return to Beirut on February 24, the next date set for a presidential vote that has been postponed 14 times so far.

During a meeting of EU and Arab foreign ministers in Malta on Tuesday that was attended by Moussa, participants stressed their conviction that the Arab League plan "is an appropriate basis for a solution to the ongoing crisis" in Lebanon.

Hariri's meetings on Tuesday included one with French Charge d'Affaires Andre Parant, while Aoun received United Nations envoy Geir Pedersen, who stressed the importance of "electing a president immediately."

"It is imperative that all politicians in Lebanon work to preserve calm during this delicate period," Pedersen said.

Meanwhile, Suleiman himself may be losing enthusiasm for the top job. In a bulletin issued to LAF members on Monday, he urged the swift election of any presidential candidate that all the parties agree on.

"The army and its commander are ready to give all their backing to a consensus candidate and ensure his election, to fortify stability and restore the normal functioning of democratic political processes and thus relieve the military authority from undertaking that political role," the statement said.

Also Tuesday, visiting US Undersecretary of Defense Erik Edelman met with several key figures, including Suleiman, Elias Murr and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Beirut 13-02-2008
The Daily Star

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