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U.S. and Europe praise Lebanon's elections

The United States and European Union praised Lebanon's elections and said they would consider convening an international conference to solicit support for the country's new government. In a joint statement released last night, Washington and Brussels said:

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Sunday's decisive final round of voting saw Lebanon's anti-Syrian united opposition coalition finally win control of the country's Parliament.

Lebanese Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa formally announced the alliance led by Saad Hariri, son of slain ex-Premier Rafik Hariri, easily swept all remaining 28 seats, taking its overall total to 72 in the 128-member assembly.

Although the united opposition has a comfortable parliamentary majority, at 72 seats it remains short of the two-thirds majority required to amend the country's consitution and pave the way to ousting pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.

Although the EU praised the elections, its observers in Lebanon added there was what it called an "urgent need" to reform the legal framework under which the polls were held.

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman labeled the elections a "milestone on the road to change," but stressed Washington was not trying to impose its own democratic model on the Lebanese people.

He said: "This reform process needs to be a Lebanese process. This is not something that foreign governments can impose on Lebanon."

Feltman added: "The international community hopes to see credible figures to promote reform."

France, which along with America was the leading force behind UN Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, also offered help to Lebanon's government.

A French Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: "Paris is now waiting for the next government to be formed, and we will give it any assistance it thinks useful."

One of the new Parliament's most pressing issues will be the election of a new parliamentary speaker this week.

Many believe parliament needs to elect a new speaker in order to show its commitment to political reform. The current incumbent, the pro-Syrian Amal leader Nabih Berri has held the post for 13 years and is blamed by many for much of Lebanon's political decay in recent years.

Hariri, who has now emerged as a strong contender for the premiership said he wanted to "reach out and cooperate" with other political factions in the country.

"Once the Lebanese government has defined its reform agenda and should it so request, we will consider convening an international conference to consolidate support for the Lebanese people and the new government."

Hariri said: "I can not deny the presence of other political powers on the Lebanese political scene, but we will all have to work together for Lebanon's best interest."

Hariri declined to comment on whether he will step up to the premiership and pointedly refused to discuss renewed calls for president Lahoud's resignation. But he added these issues would be discussed with his political allies before any decisions were made.

Hariri said: "We are not alone in Parliament; we have our allies to discuss these issues with."

Hariri also called on former Premier Omar Karami to apologize for offending Lebanon's Grand Mufti Mohammad Rachid Qabbani during the election by accusing him of siding with Hariri's grouping and offending the Sunni sect.

Hariri said: "There is a sacristy for the religious position of the mufti, and it should not be disrespected."

He also rebuffed accusations of buying votes, calling the accusation "an offense to all the people in the north who voted for us."

Rival opposition group Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, who fought an increasingly bitter battle with Hairri's grouping during the elections, ruled out any chance of teaming up with him in Parliament.

He said: "We will be in the opposition. We can't be with a majority that reached Parliament through corruption."

Aoun also said his bloc of 21 MPs will not vote for the position of speaker.
He said: "As long as the speaker is allowed to be the dictator of Parliament according to current laws, we will cast blank votes."

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Beirut 20-06-2005
Majdoline Hatoum
The Daily Star



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