Friday, January 19, 2007

Siniora: Reforms are key to Lebanon's stability

Siniora: Reforms are key to Lebanon's stability
By Nada Bakri
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Premier Fouad Siniora said on Thursday that his embattled government's push for economic reform was critical to restoring stability in Lebanon. Siniora was speaking from Amman on the last leg of a regional tour that won him widespread support from Arab rulers for an international donor conference for Lebanon to be held in Paris on January 25 at a time when he is facing mounting pressure at home to reshuffle his Cabinet or resign. "Reforms have become crucial for Lebanon," Siniora said after meeting Jordanian Premier Maarouf Bakhit, the state-run Petra news agency reported. Earlier this month the government in Beirut adopted a reform plan that hinges on raising the Value Added Tax and privatization of the national power company to shore up an economy devastated by the summer 2006 war with Israel. It will submit the plan at the Paris III conference, which is expected to help Lebanon reduce its $41 billion public debt. "The conference is in the interest of all the Lebanese. It will pave the way to bolstering financial stability. Without it the situation will be very difficult for Lebanon and the Lebanese," Siniora said. The forum will be attended by Western countries, oil-rich Arab Gulf states and international organizations. Jordan said Thursday it would send Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Fariz, who also holds the finance portfolio, to attend the conference. "Jordan backs and supports efforts under way for the success of the Paris III conference," King Abdullah II told Siniora, a court statement said. "Jordan fully supports Lebanon and places all its capabilities at its service to back efforts aimed at achieving reconciliation," the king said, adding that Amman would help rebuild Lebanese regions damaged by the Israeli offensive.

In Beirut, the General Labor Confederation, backed by the Hizbullah-led opposition, has been holding protests against the government's reform plan. Siniora urged Hizbullah to engage in dialogue as a means to resolve the political impasse. "Dialogue, accepting one another and drawing on our constitutional institutions are the only ways to resolve Lebanon's problems," he said. "The only solution is to reach out. There should be no divisions and no divorce between the Lebanese people," he added. Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is expected to give a speech Friday to outline the opposition's "escalation." Efforts to resolve the ongoing power struggle were stalled after Arab League chief Amr Moussa left Beirut last December with little to show for his mediation efforts. On Thursday, he told local television station LBCI that his initiative has "a future and I am witnessing progress, however slow."

In other developments, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, was quoted on Thursday by local daily As-Safir as saying that Tehran backed the opposition's demand for the creation of a national unity government. Tehran hopes to join forces with Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the Siniora government, to resolve Lebanon's political crisis, Larijani added. Siniora said Lebanon wanted good ties with Iran, Hizbullah's main backer, but only if those relations were based on mutual respect and the principle of non-interference. "We want to have good relations with Iran, but based on mutual respect. If Iran wishes to help Lebanon it should be done through the Lebanese government," Siniora said, according to the court statement. "No one should support one faction over the other."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and eight Arab counterparts have pledged to provide financial support for Lebanon ahead of the Paris III conference, and also called for non-interference in its affairs. The pledge was made in a joint statement issued Tuesday in Kuwait City after Rice met with foreign ministers from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan. In other developments, Speaker Nabih Berri met Thursday with French Ambassador Bernard Emie, while Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh met with US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. Both diplomats reiterated their support for Paris III. Emie quoted Berri as having said "he fully supports the Paris III conference and thanks France and President Jacques Chirac for all their efforts preparing for it." Hamadeh said after meeting with Feltman that "support for the conference is increasing every day, which indicates it will render positive results." "The success of Paris III is not for one Lebanese group, it is in the benefit of all the Lebanese," he added. "That is why talk about escalation should stop and dialogue should be resumed." In Washington, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon met with President George W. Bush for talks that included a discussion of Lebanon. The top UN official said he will participate in the Paris III conference and hold meetings with Lebanese officials, including Siniora.

Siniora returned to Beirut Thursday night. He will head a Cabinet session on Friday - the fifth since five Shiite ministers quit the government after talks to form a national unity government and draft a new electoral law collapsed. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said the ongoing opposition campaign against the government was "against the system and public institutions and against normal life and the Taif Accord." In comments made during an interview with local weekly Magazine to be published on Friday, Geagea said that he feared more assassinations would rock Lebanon in the coming months. - With agencies

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