Monday, January 29, 2007

Siniora reaches out to Berri and Lahoud as Nasrallah urges all sides not to seek 'revenge on their own'

Siniora reaches out to Berri and Lahoud as Nasrallah urges all sides not to seek 'revenge on their own'
By Rym Ghazal
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Internal political initiatives intensified in Lebanon over the weekend in an attempt to defuse the political crisis between the ruling coalition and the opposition forces. As local and international leaders stepped up efforts to navigate a way out of the crisis, which has sparked fears of a return to civil war, Lebanese leaders from across the political spectrum called for calm and unity.

Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, urged all the Lebanese, especially the families of those who died during recent clashes, to "remain calm, and not try to take revenge on their own." "There is a state, there are security forces and there is a judicial system in Lebanon that will not let this issue go, and we will not let this issue go," he said. "We have to protect Lebanon because this is an Israeli plot for us to fall into civil strife. Do not allow those devils to drag the resistance's weapons into bringing down Lebanon and creating strife," he added. "It is absolutely forbidden for there to be chaos among us. Spontaneous reactions are absolutely forbidden," he said. "We will be judged on judgement day for this and we have a great responsibility to control ourselves," Nasrallah said. Nasrallah repeated his vow that Hizbullah's weapons would never be used in internal strife, but stressed that the opposition will not give up its campaign to unseat the government.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora tried to break the ice by telephoning Speak Nabih Berri and President Emile Lahoud, but no actual meeting has been set. A statement by Siniora's office issued late Friday said he telephoned Lahoud and Berri, both pro-Syrian officials and supporters of the opposition. Sources close to Berri confirmed the phone calls between the speaker and the premier but said that so far "nothing has been set or changed." Siniora also publicly urged his political opponents to work toward ending the deadlock, saying that the alternative was too "frightening." As Siniora made efforts to arrange a meeting with opposition leaders, Hizbullah MP Amin Cherri told The Daily Star "there will be no meeting between opposition and the government until the government at least agrees on the main demand - that of a united, representative government." "Berri is in touch with all the different parties in the opposition, and so far there has been no call from him for us to all meet," said Cherri.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Lebanon, Abdel-Aziz Khoja, met separately Saturday with both Siniora and Berri. Berri told reporters after the one-hour meeting with Khoja that he was "more optimistic" about reaching a resolution. "It is time for the Lebanese to unite and save the country," Khoja told the media after his meeting with Siniora. "And it's about time given how the situation has reached its peak." Iran, Hizbullah's principal backer, and its regional rival Saudi Arabia, which supports Siniora's government, have reportedly held a series of contacts this week on what Iranian state television called "the critical situation in Lebanon." Sources have said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Siniora and Berri in a bid to settle the impasse. Local daily An-Nahar, citing ministerial sources, said Sunday that Iranian and Saudi efforts were still under way to bring together the two leaders, who have not met since the resignation of six ministers in November. "Iran has a critical regional presence and role, and we have been in constant contact with the officials there, and one of the issues discussed is the current situation in Lebanon," said Khoja. "What happens in Lebanon has regional repercussions, and so we are working with all the critical players at find a solution," he said - adding, however, that "the solution has to come from the Lebanese themselves."

As Iranian and Saudi Arabian efforts continued, Siniora called the Arab League's secretary general, Amr Moussa, and asked him to come to Lebanon next week to resume his mediation efforts. When contacted by The Daily Star, sources close to the Arab League said that while no exact date has been set for Moussa's next visit, his return to Lebanon will "most likely" be after Ashoura on Tuesday. Moussa tried to mediate between Lebanese leaders during visits in December but failed to resolve the crisis. The Arab League, among others, has made proposals in the past for reshaping Lebanon's political institutions to better reflect the nation's disparate communities - only to see none of them accepted.

Addressing his supporters on Sunday during a religious ceremony, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's second in command, said the opposition will "not be dragged into sectarian strife." "There is no battle between opposition and loyalists, but between Lebanon against the international world that doesn't want stability in this country," said Qassem. "We are at an important crossroads, and we will pick unity against division," he said, echoing statements made by other Hizbullah officials. Calls for calm also came from an unlikely source on Saturday - the former Hizbullah leader, Sheikh Sobhi Tufeili, once wanted by authorities for a late-1990s civil disobedience campaign and expelled from Hizbullah in 1998 because of it. "I hope everyone will leave the streets and ... sit around a table like all sane people do," Tufeili said in reference to two months of Hizbullah-led sit-ins in downtown Beirut.

March 14 Forces MP Ghassan Tueni pressed Berri to "speed up" the process of convening a parliamentary session. "Put pressure for the session to happen or set up a meeting for dialogue outside Parliament," Tueni said during an interview with a local radio station on Sunday. Tueni also called on Nasrallah "to work for Lebanon, and not against Lebanon." Meanwhile, Telecommunication Minister Marwan Hamadeh called for a "return to dialogue," and said in a statement on Sunday that "the street can't remain uncontrolled like this, where the leaders don't talk to each other unless there are martyrs." This came after British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett expressed her country's concern late Friday over the latest violent clashes in Lebanon. "It is vital that all sides work to prevent the situation getting out of control," she said in an official statement. "We continue to support the people of Lebanon and their democratically elected government and believe that differences between the parties should be resolved through political dialogue rather than street action," said Beckett. - With agencies, additional reporting by Maher Zeineddine

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