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French Version

Siniora government reverses steps aimed at pressuring Hizbullah

Move meets key demand as Arab league delegates begin mediation

Lebanon's politicial crisis showed early signs of resolution on Wednesday after the Cabinet rescinded two controversial decisions that had prompted deadly street battles in Beirut and other parts of the country last week.

With an Arab League delegation having arrived in Beirut earlier in a bid to end the recent conflict between government and opposition parties, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government announced late in the evening that it had canceled a probe into Hizbullah's private communications network and the sacking of the head of security at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport. General Wafiq Shoukair, over his reported close ties to the opposition.

The decisions had been described as a "declaration of war" by Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and led to the gunmen from the party and its allies briefly dislodging their counterparts from offices in Beirut and other areas in clashes that left at least 65 dead and more than 200 wounded. The cancellations had been a key demand of the opposition.

Several officials close to the both the ruling majority and the opposition had said earlier that the government would likely wait to cancel the measures on Thursday as part of a "package deal."

Although the opposition's forces withdrew over the weekend after the army moved in, it had refused to lift its blockade on Beirut's airport and its campaign of civil disobedience unless the government revoked its controversial measures and got back to the negotiating table.

For its part, the ruling coalition had said it would not negotiate under the gun and is insisting that the issue of Hizbullah's weapons be addressed.

The Arab delegation, headed by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, held talks with members of the US-backed government and the Hizbullah-led opposition, who have been locked in a bitter political feud for 18 months.

The delegates met Speaker Nabih Berri, Siniora, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, Lebanese Armed Forces chief General Michel Suleiman, former President Amin Gemayel, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.

Sources close to the Arab League mission told The Daily Star on Wednesday that the delegation was not aiming at imposing any conditions on the rival parties in Lebanon.

The sources said that the delegation wanted to see if there was a common denominator between the parties that could be built upon in order to reach a settlement to the ongoing political crisis.

"If the conditions requested by both camps are political and reasonable, this means that the first step of the Arab initiative is successful," one source said.

"In this case, the next step will be heading to Doha for dialogue," the source explained. "The rival parties will meet in Doha and Sheikh Hamad will preside over the negotiations."

"The dialogue between Lebanese parties is not likely to take place in Lebanon. However, it were to take place here, Berri insists that such dialogue should be held under his auspices," the source added.

The sources said that it has been made clear to all parties by the Europeans, the United States, and Arabs that if the Arab effort fails, the interna-tional community will not stay idle and will start considering taking some measures.

"The Arab effort is not an open-ended attempt," said one official. "If there is a failure, the committee is bound to announce its failures and explain the reasons behind it."

Meanwhile, sources close to Berri told The Daily Star that he told the Arab delegation that the opposition was not trying to realize any political gains from the recent clashes in the country.

The sources added that Berri did not mind holding talks between rival leaders in Doha.

Later on Wednesday, Gemayel said after meeting the Arab delegation at his residence in Sin al-Fil that the first item on the agenda of any dialogue should be Hizbullah's arsenal.

"We welcome Sheikh Hamad's proposal to hold dialogue in Doha," Gemayel said. But "before taking part in any dialogue, we need guarantees after Hizbullah's using of its arms against other Lebanese parties."

"People are worried as a result of Hizbullah's actions and we need reassurances," he added. "What Hizbullah did left a big bruise in the hearts of many people ... A great effort should be made to heal this bruise."

Meanwhile, Aoun said after meeting the delegation at his residence in Rabieh that he will not spare any effort to facilitate the success of the Arab mission.

"I also hope that other parties do all that is necessary to help the Arab delegation," he said. "The current circumstances are very tough and could be even tougher unless some concessions are made."

Aoun blamed the recent escalation on the government.

"We have been warning against such behavior for three years," the former army commander said. "A new approach in rule should be adopted."

After meeting Aoun, the delegation headed to meet Geagea at his residence in Zouk Mosbeh.

Geagea said after the meeting that any talks between the rival parties should tackle two issues: Hizbullah's relations with the Lebanese state and a new electoral law for the 2009 parliamentary elections.

He said that although he did not mind holding dialogue in Doha, he preferred holding the talks in Lebanon: "I appreciate what our Qatari brothers are doing, but I personally prefer inter-Lebanese dialogue in Lebanon."

Geagea also said that the government did not need to cancel its decisions regarding the airport security chief and Hizbullah's private telecommunications network.

"The government has referred the decisions to the army, which in turn is in charge of tackling this issue," he said before the moves were rescinded.

The Hizbullah-led opposition vowed earlier not to end its civil disobedience before the government revoked its decisions.

Beirut 15-05-2008
The Daily Star

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