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High-level Lebanese talks in Qatar

Retrieved from AP on May 21, 2008

May 17, 2008

 BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon's ruling coalition demanded Saturday that talks to end the country's 18

 -month-old political crisis tackle the issue of Hezbollah's weapons, a demand the militant group rejected.

 Hezbollah insisted the group's arsenal remain untouched, saying it was necessary for fighting Israel,

 Lebanese media reported on the first day of the negotiations in Qatar on forming a unity government

 and electing a president after the country's worst violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

 The two sides flew to Qatar's capital, Doha, following a deal mediated by the Arab League that brought

 an end to a week of violence. The deal included an agreement that the talks would lead to the election of

 compromise candidate Army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman as president.

 President Bush said the country had reached a "defining moment."

 The weapons demand was seen as an attempt by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's side to guarantee that

 Hezbollah won't take to the streets again as it did when it overran Sunni Muslim West Beirut in clashes

 left 67 people dead and wounded more than 200.

 "This is a defining moment," Bush said after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in

 Egypt. "It is a moment that requires us to stand strongly with the Saniora government and to support the

 Saniora government."

 Lebanon's official National News Agency said the Qatar talks became tense when parliament majority

 leader Saad Hariri, a Sunni, and hardline pro-government Christian politician Samir Geagea brought up

 the issue of Hezbollah's weapons.

 Geagea had warned Hezbollah that Doha talks would fail if the Shiite Islamist group sticks to keeping its


 "We can no longer accept Hezbollah as it is," he told the Qatari Al-Jazeera TV.

 The private LBC Television said the feuding sides engaged in "heated discussions" over the subject, which

 took up most of the morning session.

 Lawmaker Mohammed Raad, who heads Hezbollah's delegation in Qatar, defended the group keeping its

 arsenal, saying the weapons were meant to fight against Israel and "must not be touched," according to


 Lebanon has had no president since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud's term ended in November.

 The violence last week was triggered by government measures to rein in Hezbollah. The violence

 eventually forced the government to revoke the measures, giving Hezbollah an upper hand in its standoff

 with the government.

 Subsequently, Qatari host Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani asked the two sides to stick

 for now to discussions on a national unity government. According to NNA, they set up a four-party

 committee to draft a new election law.

 Saniora struck an upbeat note, saying Saturday's session showed "all parties are eager to reach an

 understanding that will lead to the beginning of a solution to this crisis," the private Voice of Lebanon

 Radio reported.

 Washington and Saniora's faction have accused Iran and Syria of seeking to undermine the Lebanese

 government and Middle East stability, while Hezbollah accuses the prime minister and his allies in the anti

 -Syrian coalition of being America's servants.

 The talks in Qatar are the first time top leaders from the Lebanese sides came face-to-face in the crisis.

 Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who is in hiding fearing assassination by Israel, did not attend.

 Associated Press Writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.


 Lebanon's feuding factions reach agreement

By HUSSEIN DAKROUB, Associated Press Writer

May 21, 2008

 BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon's feuding factions reached a breakthrough deal Wednesday that ends the

 country's 18-month political stalemate, but also gives the militant Hezbollah group and its allies veto over

 any government decision.

 The deal, reached with the help of Arab mediators, was immediately praised by Iran and Syria, which

 back Hezbollah. But it appears certain to accelerate fears in the West over Hezbollah's new power.

 Pro-government politician and parliament majority leader, Saad Hariri, seemed to acknowledge his side

 had largely caved in, spurred by a sharp outbreak of violence earlier this month after months of


 "I know that the wounds are deep and my injury is deep, but we only have each other to build Lebanon,"

 he said after the announcement of the deal, which was brokered after five days of talks in Qatar.

 Hezbollah's chief negotiator, Mohammed Raad, downplayed the group's win.

 "Neither side got all it demanded, but (the agreement) is a good balance between all parties' demands,"

 he said.

 The Bush administration seemed to be trying to put the best face on the deal even though it gave more

 power to Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group by Washington and Israel.

 "We view this agreement as a positive step toward resolving the current crisis," Secretary of State

 Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. "We call upon all Lebanese leaders to implement this agreement in

 its entirety."

 The election of a compromise president — the head of Lebanon's mostly neutral army — was expected

 Sunday, Lebanon's state news agency reported.

 The Hezbollah-led opposition won both its demands with the deal: veto power in a new national unity

 government, and an electoral law that divides Lebanon into smaller-sized districts, allowing for better

 representation of the country's various sects.

 A few bursts of celebratory gunfire broke out in Beirut after the announcement. Lebanese television

 stations, which broadcast the Qatar ceremony live, showed Lebanese politicians and their Arab hosts

 congratulating and hugging one another.

 The talks in Qatar and the deal were a dramatic cap to Lebanon's worst internal fighting since the 1975

 -90 civil war. At least 67 people were killed when clashes broke out between pro-government groups and

 the opposition in the streets Beirut and elsewhere earlier this month.

 As Lebanon came close to a new all-out war, Arab League mediators intervened and got the sides to

 agree to hold last-ditch negotiations in the Qatari capital, Doha, to resolve the crisis.

 But the resulting deal was a major victory for Hezbollah.

 Opposition-allied Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri also spoke at the Doha ceremony, saying that

 an opposition tent encampment across from the government building in downtown Beirut would be

 dismantled Wednesday.

 Berri called such action a "gift" from the opposition, hailing the Doha agreement.

 Within an hour, pickup trucks began hauling mattresses and supplies away from the encampment, which

 has paralyzed the commercial heart of the Lebanese capital for more than a year. Opposition supporters

 dismantled tents and took apart wooden boards used in the encampment.

 In Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the Lebanese deal was an "example of

 regional integration for achieving stability and tranquility."

 Syria also promptly endorsed the deal, with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem saying "Lebanon's security

 and stability are important and vital to Syria's security and stability."

 French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he was "personally very happy" about the Doha

 agreement and said it was now "up to all the Lebanese to use this accord to build the basis for national


 Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said the Lebanese should draw lessons from what happened and

 called on them to reject violence. He also called on Arab states to help support Lebanese forces, which

 kept a neutral role during the latest clashes.

 "We must ... pledge never to resort to arms to resolve our political differences," Saniora said at the Doha

 ceremony. "We should accept each other and hold dialogue to solve the problems. We want to live

 together and we will continue that. We have no other choice."

 French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the deal was a "great success for Lebanon and all the Lebanese,

 whose courage and patience never failed despite the ordeals they have been through."

 As part of the deal reached at dawn Wednesday, Hezbollah and its political allies would receive veto

 power in the country's new national unity government. The Syrian-backed opposition would get 11 seats

 in the Cabinet, while 16 seats would go to the U.S.- and Western-backed parliament majority.

 The remaining three would be distributed by the elected president. Previously, the opposition held six

 seats in the Cabinet.

 The agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, states that the factions "pledged

 to refrain" from taking up weapons to resolve disputes and that the "use of arms or violence is forbidden

 to settle political differences under any circumstances."

 The government had sought a concession in Doha that Hezbollah would not again turn its guns on fellow

 Lebanese as in fighting earlier this month, but the broad clause referring to all Lebanese armed groups

 was apparently as much as it achieved.

 Lebanese Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said while the agreement "forbids internal use

 of weapons," it also "calls for dialogue ... on the whole subject of arms."

 Hamadeh also said both sides were satisfied with the new election law. The legislation is significant

 because it will determine how the sides distribute power in the capital and directly influence the outcome

 of the next parliamentary elections in 2009.

 Lebanon has been without a president since Emile Lahoud stepped down in November, and rival factions

 have been unable to resolve their differences over a future government.

 Both sides have agreed on Gen. Michel Suleiman, the army chief, as a consensus candidate. But

 parliament had been unable to muster a quorum to meet because of disagreement on other remaining

 issues — including the formation of the national unity government and electoral law.

 Hamadeh also said legislators from the parliament majority, who have been living abroad fearing for

 their safety after a wave of bombings targeting mainly anti-Syrian lawmakers and politicians, would be

 asked to return to Beirut to vote for the president in parliament.

 The agreement was struck after host Qatar stepped up pressure Tuesday, offering the rival factions two

 drafts on how to end the deadlock and a day to consider the proposals.

 The 18-month standoff started when Hezbollah-led opposition lawmakers resigned from the government

 in November 2006 to protest the Cabinet's refusal to grant them enough seats to ensure veto power.

 The Qatar deal was also a triumph for the tiny energy-rich Gulf state. The Lebanese stalemate had defied

 mediation efforts by other Arab and European countries, including shuttle diplomacy in the last year by

 the foreign minister of France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler.