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French Version

Lebanese leaders enter historic national dialogue

After a year of upheaval, Beirut's Downtown is once again the focus of attention, as top leaders gather and for the first time in the country's history try to find solutions to the fierce divisions threatening national stability. The national dialogue, launched by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, aims to bring the different players from the country's fractious political arena to a round table with the hopes of forging an alliance instead of the current discord.

But as leaders of the political parties prepare themselves for heated rounds of debate, pre-set political positions and harsh sectarian divisions made a strong imprint, giving a glimpse of the challenges the dialogue will face.

The differences are mainly an insistence by the March 14 Forces to discuss the issue of ousting President Emile Lahoud before anything else, and a refusal by Hizbullah, who is insisting the first topic should be preserving the resistance's weapons, which is rejected by some, such as Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt.

In addition, an expected trip by Jumblatt to the U.S. Sunday is expected to slow down the dialogue, as it means the Druze sect will not be represented by its key player.

Issues to be discussed at the round table are the three main sensitive topics right now in Beirut: UN Resolution 1559, relations with Syria, and the truth behind the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

Berri refused Wednesday to discuss any topic external to the agenda, but he asserted the issue of ousting Lahoud would be discussed as it falls under the stipulations of Resolution 1559.

But sources close to Future Movement MP Saad Hariri - who met with Jumblatt late Wednesday - said the dialogue is not likely to end the current crisis, and is being held as a prelude to the announcement of an Arab initiative, which is still under preparation.

Talking before student representatives of the Lebanese Forces, LF leader Samir Geagea, warned that if some people were trying to shift attention from efforts to oust Lahoud, "they are very wrong."

"The issue of ousting Lahoud will be present with us at the dialogue table," he said. "Any dialogue that does not take into consideration the issue of the presidency will have no meaning."

Geagea, who made sure to make clear he supported the dialogue said the battle to "free Baabda presidential palace" will continue no matter what the results of the dialogue are.

"This will remain our priority, and one way or another we will accomplish it," he said. "It is shameful that Lahoud remains in Baabda Palace after all that has happened, and that he allows himself to throw advice around ... he is the person who hurt the post of the presidency most in all the history of Lebanon."

In turn, Free Patriotic Movement leader Kesrouan MP Michel Aoun said he was going to the dialogue "with clear intentions."

"This is a dialogue that should lead to solving the country's main points of difference, and in order to make it work we should all go with no pre-set agendas," he told The Daily Star in an interview to be published Friday.

In a similar statement, the FPM's main allies, Hizbullah, said the country had no other choice but to engage in "sincere dialogue in order to work out all the differences."

Beirut 02-03-2006
Majdoline Hatoum
The Daily Star

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