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French Version

Doha : no breakthrough, but no breakdown either

Hopes for a breakthrough to solve Lebanon's 18-month-old political deadlock dimmed considerably on Monday with neither camp willing to make concessions at talks being held in Qatar's capital, Doha.

An indication of how convoluted the talks were came late Monday evening, when Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani joined talks with the rival leaders for the second day in a row in a bid to help break the impasse - or at least to keep the talks going.

Sheikh Hamad and other senior Qatari officials were to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, beginning on Tuesday, and there indications that the Lebanese delegations might return to Lebanon.

Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri vowed earlier, however, that he would make no such move. Speaking to Al-Arabiya satellite news channel, the MP said he refuses to return to Beirut "until an agreement is reached."

As The Daily Star went to press, Sheikh Hamad was meeting with representatives of both Hariri's March 14 coalition and the opposition March 8 alliance. It was unclear how many other leaders from the two sides would follow Hariri's lead.

Also on Monday, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani called for an urgent meeting of the Arab Ministerial Committee tasked with steering the talks.

A press conference by the Arab mediators had been scheduled for late afternoon but had not been held by the time The Daily Star went to press.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa told reporters that the talks were "in the middle of the road" but added that the sides were each "talking about something else." "We are trying to get them closer to each other," he said.

The talks follow an Arab-mediated deal that got the two sides to end a week of the country's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 Civil War, and agree to hold negotiations on overcoming the standoff that has paralyzed Lebanon.

The issue of the electoral law was a source of considerable controversy on Monday. The two sides differ over the size of constituencies for the elections - especially in Beirut - amid opposing assessments of their political advantage.

A six-member committee was created Saturday to discuss a new election law. Reports said the panel had made progress and was now working out the details of how to divide the capital.

The issue is significant because it will heavily influence the outcome of the 2009 parliamentary elections.

Following a large-scale meeting in Doha on Monday, the Hizbullah-led opposition issued a statement demanding that both key issues - the formation of a national unity government and the drafting of a new electoral law - be resolved in Doha before striking a deal that would be topped off by electing a new president in Parliament.

On Sunday, the talks' Qatari hosts had put forward compromise proposals calling for the immediate election of a new head of state and the formation of a national unity government while postponing discussion of a proposed new electoral law.

Qatar also proposed the formation of a national unity government of 30 ministers, including 13 from pro-government parties, 10 from the opposition and seven chosen by the newly elected president.

In its statement, the opposition refused to postpone discussion of the electoral law and said it was committed to the Arab-brokered agreement in Beirut, which led to the Doha talks.

The ruling coalition had previously argued for a need to elect a new president before discussing other pending matters, a demand the opposition has repeatedly rebuffed.

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun told Lebanon's Orange TV that the pro-government side was offering the opposition veto power in a future national unity government, as long as the Hizbullah-led side agrees to a government-drafted election law. He called the suggestion "childish" because the national unity government would only sit until 2009.

"They wanted to share a government with us for 11 months, and then take the state and presidency for four years," Aoun said.

Government delegates said the next step was up to the Qatari hosts after the opposition rejected it proposal.

Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea demanded on Monday the deployment of Arab troops in Lebanon to provide security following last week's deadly clashes between opposition and pro-government gunmen.

"I put forward a clear proposal to the Arab committee, [to deploy] Arab peacekeeping forces," Geagea told AFP in Qatar. "This demand will become more pressing" if the Doha talks fail, he added.

"If we want real stability this is the solution," Geagea said, adding that the situation remains precarious after at least 65 people were killed in the fighting, and Hizbullah and its Shiite allies briefly seized Sunni areas of western Beirut before handing over pro-government offices and other positions to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which remained neutral during the crisis.

A so-called "Arab Deterrent Force," consisting mainly of Syrian troops, was deployed in Lebanon following an early escalation of the Civil War in 1976, but the force became purely Syrian after other countries withdrew their troops.

Syria did not end its military presence in Lebanon until 2005 after it was accused of being behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a charge it has denied.

Geagea said that while Lebanon's past experience with Arab peacekeepers was disastrous, things could be different now if contributing states do not have political agendas to pursue. He did not identify which states might be without such agendas.

Disagreements between the two sides over Hizbullah's large arsenal have proved an additional stumbling block in the talks, with the government representatives insisting that it be on the agenda. Qatar sought to bridge the rift by offering to come up with a compromise.

The head of the Hizbullah delegation, MP Mohammed Raad, said on Sunday: "The issue of the resistance, its arms and capabilities is not up for discussion in Doha."

Beirut 20-05-2008
The Daily Star

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