Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Rival Lebanese leaders resume talks but hopes slim

Rival Lebanese leaders resume talks but hopes slim
By Lin Noueihed, REUTERS

Rival Lebanese leaders resumed political talks on Tuesday but hopes were slim they would reach a swift compromise on a government reshuffle that would stop the crisis spilling into the streets. The "national consultations" began on Monday with a pledge by Lebanon's politicians to refrain from attacking each other in the media. They were expected now to turn to the key issue - Hezbollah's demand that its allies get a bigger say in the running of the country. Though Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally who convened the talks, described the mood in the first session as positive, political sources said divisions between pro- and anti-Syrian politicians were as deep as ever.

Syrian-backed Hezbollah, which claimed victory in its war with Israel in July and August, has led calls for a change in the government now dominated by anti-Syrian politicians from the majority bloc in parliament. Hezbollah accuses the coalition led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of failing to back it during the war and supporting U.S.-Israeli demands for the disarmament of its guerrillas. The guerrilla group, popular with Lebanon's large Shi'ite Muslim community, has threatened to stage mass demonstrations demanding new parliamentary elections unless more of its allies are admitted to the cabinet by mid-November. Anti-Syrian politicians say they are willing to expand the government to include more opposition members but will not give them the crucial one-third of ministerial posts which would be enough to block motions in cabinet and automatically bring down the government if they resigned.

Hezbollah and its main ally Amal have five ministers in a government of 24. Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud has one ally in cabinet with the rest controlled by opponents of Syria. Hezbollah wants its main Christian ally, Michel Aoun, who made a strong showing in last year's elections, to join the government. The pro-Syrian Al-Akhbar daily labeled the talks "a dialogue of the deaf" in its main front-page headline. Other newspapers said the toughest negotiations still lay ahead.

Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations by the pro- and anti-Syrian camps would further destabilize the country and could easily degenerate into violence. The killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 led to mass protests against Syria, which many Lebanese blamed for the assassination. Under international pressure, Damascus ended a 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbor and anti-Syrian politicians swept to victory in the ensuing elections.

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