|Hariri vows election will take place on May 13
|Moussa due back in Beirut over weekend to resume mediation efforts
Parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri said on Tuesday that he was certain a new Lebanese president would be elected on May 13.
Speaking after a meeting with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Hariri also said he had no objections to meeting the head of the opposition Free Patriotic Movement, MP Michel Aoun.
Hariri added that he was still waiting for a response from Speaker Nabih Berri regarding his request for a bilateral meeting, not as a member of the ruling coalition, but as the leader of the Future parliamentary bloc.
But sources close to Berri told The Daily Star on Tuesday that the speaker was against holding national dialogue in the form of bilateral meetings with Hariri and preferred holding all-party roundtable talks.
Ali Hamdan, Berri's media adviser, said that Berri did not mind meeting Hariri to discuss the prospects of dialogue but was strongly against substituting roundtable dialogue with bilateral talks. Hamdan said that Berri's insistence on roundtable talks was based on "the success of similar talks in 2006."
"We tried bilateral talks on earlier occasions and they turned out to be unproductive, whereas the 2006 14-party roundtable talks were a great success," Hamdan said.
Hariri was informed of Berri's position in a phone conversation between the two leaders on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Berri's office issued a statement on Tuesday stressing that the speaker was still waiting to hear a clear response from the ruling coalition on his call for dialogue.
In a joint statement late Monday, the March 14 Forces delegated Hariri to meet Berri and requested guarantees that the proposed dialogue would lead to electing a new president on May 13, the date of a scheduled election session in Parliament.
Berri on Tuesday downplayed the ruling coalition's demand of guarantees in advance of dialogue. "The opposition also wants guarantees about forming a unity government and drafting a new electoral law," a statement from the speaker's information office said.
"All should give guarantees to all. Let us engage in dialogue and as soon as we reach an agreement, we will move from the dialogue table to the Parliament hall and elect a president," the statement added.
Also on Tuesday, Berri contacted Aoun and Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
Sources close to the speaker told The Daily Star that Berri would receive lawmakers on Wednesday from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. to listen to the views and opinions of different parties.
Commenting on Berri's proposed dialogue, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said on Tuesday that the speaker's call was aimed at wasting time and diverting attention from the election of a new president.
"The March 14 Forces delegated Hariri to meet Berri and discuss with him the prospects of dialogue, but we were surprised that Berri rejected bilateral talks with Hariri and insisted on holding 14-party roundtable talks," Geagea said.
"Berri's rejection of bilateral talks proves that the opposition's call for dialogue is only aimed at wasting time and delaying the election of a president," he added.
Meanwhile, Siniora received a phone call on Tuesday from US President George W. Bush, who reiterated the US administration's support for the Siniora government and voiced hope that a Lebanese president would be elected as soon as possible.
"Here's a struggling democracy in the heart of the Middle East whose internal politics are being influenced by Syria, Hizbullah, as a result of Iranian influence with Hizbullah, all aiming to destabilize the country, which should be a clear signal about the intentions of groups like Hizbullah and Hamas," Bush told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.
Siniora on Tuesday headed a ministerial meeting, which addressed a number of issues. The ministers condemned the recent detention by Hizbullah of French Socialist Party envoy Karim Pakzad, who was taking photos of sites in Beirut's southern suburbs when he was taken into custody and questioned by Hizbullah's security personnel. Pakzad was later released.
The ministers described the arrest as "completely unacceptable," and said that such actions were aimed at undermining the authority of the state.
They also discussed the measures being taken by the Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces to arrest those responsible for a shooting in Zahle earlier this month.
The shooting, which was carried out by an opposition supporter, claimed the lives of two members of the Phalange Party.
The ministerial meeting also praised the role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in bringing about security and stability in the South.
Meanwhile, Moussa announced that he is heading back to Beirut on Thursday to meet with key political figures in a fresh bid to find a solution the protracted political crisis.
"I will meet with figures from the opposition and the [parliamentary] majority with regard to the implementation of the Arab initiative to reach a compromise in the Lebanese political crisis," Moussa told AFP.
Moussa has made several previous visits to the country, which has been mired in political deadlock and without a president since November when former President Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term.
"I hope that this election takes place at any moment. The important thing is that Lebanon does not stay without a head of state," Moussa added.
While the ruling coalition and the opposition have agreed to the election of consensus candidate and army chief General Michel Suleiman, the two sides disagree on the make-up of the new cabinet and the shape of the new electoral law.
When asked about Berri's dialogue initiative, Moussa said, "We support dialogue and see it as part of the Arab initiative to break the Lebanese deadlock."
Moussa will be speaking at the Arab Economic Forum in Beirut this weekend, but will stay in the country for three days to meet with key figures including Berri, Siniora, Aoun and Hariri.
Separately, Aoun told the Lebanese daily As-Safir in remarks published Tuesday that he was pessimistic about the success of national dialogue and the election of a new president on May 13.
Aoun said that the ruling coalition's statements about the unconditional election of a president contradicted the principle of dialogue.
"If they do not want to tie the election of president to any condition, then why take part in dialogue?" Aoun asked.
"Our main problem is that the leaders of the ruling coalition do not stick to one position. They keep on changing their minds. We need to hear a unified position from them," he added.
Aoun added that he remained pessimistic because the ruling coalition "will not facilitate a settlement because it is against true partnership with the opposition."
The Daily Star