Thursday, November 09, 2006

Murr touts impending deal on unity Cabinet

Murr touts impending deal on unity Cabinet
By Nada Bakri
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Lebanon's leading politicians are expected to reach a deal over a national unity government, a key demand of Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), during Thursday's consultation meeting. According to MP Michel Murr, the official assigned to work out a "formula" Wednesday to rescue the country from political crisis, the formation of a national unity government was "70 percent" complete. "I have so far accomplished 70 percent of my mission, and now I am waiting for the last meeting, which is the most important," with Parliament majority leader MP Saad Hariri, Murr said early Wednesday afternoon. Murr added that Hariri did not oppose this formula. Hariri's office said Wednesday evening that the two officials had discussed the new formula, but declined to elaborate. Murr's spokesperson was not available for comment. Earlier meetings included talks with Speaker Nabih Berri, a close Hizbullah ally and sponsor of the national talks, and FPM leader Michel Aoun. Murr said following his meeting with Berri that all participants during the roundtable talks on Monday and Tuesday agreed to a Cabinet that includes four ministers from Aoun's bloc. He added Aoun wanted to be represented in Siniora's Cabinet - whether in its current 24-member form or in an expanded 26-member government. Either scenario would see the addition of two FPM ministers and two of the party's allies in the Armenian Tashnak Party and the Zahle bloc headed by MP Elie Skaff. The question is whether two or four current Cabinet members will be tossed.

Hizbullah and the FPM have been demanding a more inclusive government since this summer's war with Israel ended on August 14, to correct what they argue is a misrepresentation of political power. The two parties threatened to take to the streets to force a change if the anti-Syrian majority refused to meet their demands by mid-November. Sources close to Murr told the Central News Agency that the former deputy prime minister is looking to bring "a neutral blocking minority" into Siniora's reshaped Cabinet. The sources said participants must choose one of three options: Replace four ministers with FPM ministers; expand Cabinet to 26 members and introduce amendments to certain portfolios; or form a 30-member Cabinet which will guarantee a higher likelihood of pleasing all parties. Hizbullah and Amal, headed by Berri, have five ministers, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud has three ministers, including Defense Minister Elias Murr, Justice Minister Charles Rizk and Environment Minister Yaacoub Sarraf. Attaining one-third of Cabinet would allow the opposition to block any Cabinet decision it did not support.

However, media reports said Wednesday that Lahoud will not approve any new government that includes Rizk, who has not seen eye to eye with the president on key issues as of late. Rizk told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday that he has had "differences of opinion" with Lahoud since the formation of Siniora's Cabinet on two main issues: judicial appointments and an international tribunal to try those accused of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Central News Agency quoted sources close to Berri on Wednesday as saying that a breakthrough might be pos-sible on Thursday "if the right Arab and international coverage is available." But these sources said it was unlikely that a new government would be formed - if a deal is reached Thursday - before November 13, the deadline Hizbullah set for a new Cabinet. Hizbullah MP Hussein Fadlallah said Wednesday his party insists on acquiring greater representation through a national unity government. "We hope that the governing majority realizes the importance of this opportunity to correct the misrepresentation in power after they have violated all the agreements, which were the basis for accepting to participate in the current government," Fadlallah said. "We will not give up our demand ... We are not seeking to topple the government or change it, but we want to participate in power to boost the country," he added.

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