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French Version

Hariri rejects preconditions on dialogue

Divisions emerge within march 14 as rival factions prepare for national talks

Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri said during an iftar dinner on Sunday that the success of the upcoming dialogue requires that no preconditions be set by the rival sides.

Speaking earlier on Sunday, Hariri also said that he had no objection to having Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad represent Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon's national dialogue, scheduled for Tuesday at the presidential palace.

Raad, who headed the Hizbullah delegation to Doha last May, will be representing Nasrallah at the talks.

The Hizbullah chief will not be able to attend because of security concerns.

"It does not make any difference," Hariri told reporters when asked whether such a move would undermine the national dialogue.

He made his remarks during a visit to former Premier Salim al-Hoss' residence in Beirut.

The Future Movement leader, who was steering reconciliation efforts in Tripoli and the Bekaa, also visited Lebanese Democratic Party leader Talal Arslan on Sunday to offer condolences following the killing of Sheikh Saleh Aridi in a car bombing last week.

Lebanon's rival political leaders will meet Tuesday for talks set to focus on the divisive issue of Hizbullah's weapons as Lebanon grapples with new security concerns in the wake of Aridi's assassination.

President Michel Sleiman invited the 14 signatories of the May Doha accord to take part in Tuesday's session, thwarting the opposition's efforts to expand the dialogue to include more participants.

The Doha pact which ended an 18-month-long political crisis led to Sleiman's election after a six-month presidential vacuum and the formation of a national unity cabinet.

It also called for a national dialogue under the auspices of the president.

"The national defense strategy will be the title of the dialogue," said Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in comments published over the weekend, adding that participants "will decide what they want, and in light of what is discussed the dialogue agenda will be set."

The dialogue seeks mainly to define the relationship between the state and armed groups such as Hizbullah.

Controversy over Hizbullah's weaponry intensified after its fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid in July 2006. Israel responded to the border incident by launching a deadly 34-day war that devastated Lebanon.

Tensions boiled over again in May when Hizbullah took over large swathes of predominantly Sunni west Beirut during clashes between opposition fighters and pro-government gunmen. More than 65 people were killed in the fighting - the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.

The March 14 camp, which represents a majority in Parliament, maintains that the state should have the sole authority in taking war and peace decisions.

But Hizbullah's number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem, put it differently over the weekend.

"There is no equation called the resistance and the state ... There is one equation called the state that embraces the resistance," he said.

He set three conditions for the dialogue, the first being that all participants must agree that Israel is the single enemy with the second stating that they must be committed to building "a strong, just, balanced and capable state."

Qassem's third condition was that everyone agrees that the goal is "to provide the necessary means to liberate the land and secure defense through the national defense strategy."

The talks also come amid increased security concerns following Aridi's assassination.

"Daily security is really the main agenda issue that should take over the dialogue," said Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

"The national defense strategy is a long-term issue. It would be a mistake to focus ... exclusively on it," Safa told AFP. "We need to talk about ... the fact that people are living in fear."

Tuesday's talks follow up on a 2006 initiative in which the same 14 major Muslim and Christian, pro- and anti-Syrian leaders held several round-table meetings in a bid to forge political unity.

Their efforts were interrupted by the 2006 summer war.

The 2006 talks were also the first without Syrian supervision since the Civil War.

Damascus maintained an almost three-decade-long military presence in Lebanon, only withdrawing in 2005 after the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

In a separate development on Sunday, divisions within the March 14 bloc started to surface as Sejaan Azzi, adviser to former President Amin Gemayel, criticized recent remarks by Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Jumblatt.

Speaking to LBC television, Azzi accused Jumblatt of undermining the Christian components of the March 14 Forces, referring to the Phalange Party and the Lebanese Forces.

"If you believe the Phalange Party and the Lebanese Forces are a burden on your shoulders, we would like to inform you that you yourself are a burden on our shoulders, namely due to your past," Azzi said, hinting at past differences between Jumblatt and Christian parties.

Al-Akhbar newspaper quoted Jumblatt as saying last week that the Phalange and LF would not be able to give any added value to their allies in next year's parliamentary polls given that the Christian constituencies would determine the next parliamentary majority.

However, the PSP issued a statement claiming that Al-Akhbar "published excerpts from a lengthy conversation with Jumblatt that included incorrect information and skewed ideas ... especially that they came in the context of a non-official meeting that was not aimed at making statements to the press, but was within the framework of a general discussion of recent developments."

Beirut 15-09-2008
The Daily Star

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