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French Version

Lebanese opposition leader softens stance against Lahoud

Jumblatt says elections and timetable for Syrian withdrawal are top priority

Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt appeared to soften his stance against the country's pro-Syrian leadership, insisting that the ousting of President Emile Lahoud is not a priority until after the country's May elections.

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Jumblatt also appeared to backtrack on opposition demands for the resignation of the country's top security chiefs.

He said: "After the elections, there will be a government of national unity and we will purify the intelligence services of Syrian influence and they will become Lebanese."

Jumblatt had called for Lahoud to quit after last month's assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, an attack they blamed on Syria, a charge Damascus has denied.

But speaking after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Jumblatt said: "The priority is the election and a clear-set timetable for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and then after the election we will see what will happen in the future for Lahoud."

The about-face by the Druze leader, who has consistently called for Lahoud to go despite an opposition agreement not to seek his resignation, followed a morning meeting with Mubarak.

Mubarak, who visited Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus last week, is scheduled to meet with French President Jacques Chirac, one of Syria's fiercest Western critics, later this week.

It is understood the U.S. along with some European powers and Arab states want Lahoud to remain in place in order to ensure that parliamentary elections take place in May.

Lebanese Maronite Patricarch Nasrallah Sfeir has also said Lahoud should remain in power until the country has voted in a new government.

Following talks with U.S. and UN officials during the last week Sfeir came out in favor of forming a transitional government, split evenly between the opposition and government loyalists to take the country into the elections.

Premier-designate Omar Karami, who is charged with forming an interim government, has so far failed to convince the opposition to join a new cabinet.

Karami explained: "I am ready to undertake this mission despite all difficulties, but when I feel my back is to the wall, I will not form a neutral or one-color government."

He said his envoys would meet Sfeir and Jumblatt to consult on forming the government. He added: "Depending on what the envoys come back with, I will then decide whether to continue the dialogue or resign."

But despite his softer tone toward Lahoud, Jumblatt continued to insist that the oppositon will not serve in any interim government ahead of the elections until its demands for an independent investigation into Hariri's assassination and the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Jumblatt warned Karami that any attempt to avoid holding parliamentary elections "will lead to a dangerous and long dilemma."

Opposition Koura MP Farid Makari, said: "Karami is slowing down the consultations to form a government because the authorities want to obstruct the election, which they fear would lead to a change in the regime."

On the eve of meeting Mubarak, Jumblatt urged Karami to hold elections on time and form a government, but advised him "not to include in it any provocative figures."

Commenting on the wider issue of UN Resolution 1559, which calls for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of Lebanese resistance group Hizbullah. Jumblatt said: "President Mubarak stressed the need for Syria to respect international legality."

He added: "We do not wish to be enemies with Syria but the situation cannot rest as it is in Lebanon."

Commenting on the controversial issue of Hizbullah's arms and its political role, Jumblatt said: "We will talk with Hizbullah but we cannot talk with a team that was part of the ongoing government, which we accuse of treason and negligence."

Jumblatt said disarmament of Hizbullah was "a matter for the Lebanese" to be addressed "after the Syrian withdrawal."

He said: "We say there is international legality which Syria must respect, and leave Lebanon, but the question of Hizbullah is an internal affair which we will deal with in future talks, which we hope will bring results. For the moment, the question of disarmament is not being raised."

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Beirut 22-03-2005
Adnan El Ghoul
The Daily Star

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