Monday, April 23, 2007

Divided Lebanese leaders set sights on battle for presidency

Divided Lebanese leaders set sights on battle for presidency
By Hani M. Bathish
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Presidential elections in Lebanon have taken center stage in the country's political deadlock, as pro-government MPs weighed their next step to ensure that a tribunal to try suspects in the slaying of former Premier Rafik Hariri is formed. A government source told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International television station that the government will not take rapid steps toward creating the court under Chapter 7 until after UN chief Ban Ki-moon's trip to Damascus on Tuesday and until a report is issued by the UN's top legal adviser, Nicolas Michel. The source added that for the time being, the ball is in the UN Security Council's court. Earlier reports had said that the March 14 Forces MPs were considering sending a new letter to the UN from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, urging the world body to do all it could to establish the international court if Parliament does not convene soon. As a final warning to the opposition and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the MPs will once again head to Parliament on Tuesday - the same day that Ban heads to Damascus to discuss the tribunal - to protest the body's paralysis for the sixth week since ordinary sessions were first due to resume.

Meanwhile, the deeply divisive issue of the upcoming Lebanese presidential election, scheduled to be held in September for the first time since Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon in 2005, is becoming the new focus of the ruling coalition. Berri had announced earlier this month that he would convene Parliament on September 25 to elect a new president, provided a quorum of two-thirds can be attained. Lebanese Forces MP Georges Adwan, speaking to LBCI Sunday morning, said his party's main focus now is the issue of the presidency, adding that the matters of the tribunal and the government are "behind us now." Adwan said a compromise between the two camps on this issue could be reached, but he ruled out three scenarios: "another six years with a president whose loyalties are unknown, selecting a president from a list of 'known names' [Syria's allies], or choosing a candidate who is mired in corruption." He said the two pivotal issues for all the Christians are the presidency and the new electoral law. But Hizbullah's second in command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, addressing a rally in Haret Hreik, said his party would consider any president not elected by a majority of two thirds an "impostor and a traitor to the Constitution" with no right to rule. Addressing the parliamentary majority, Qassem said: "If you elect him he will be your president; he will not be president of the country, only the president of your parliamentary majority."

LF leader Samir Geagea, speaking on Saturday, the 13th anniversary of his arrest and detention for war crimes, said the struggle today is between the government of "March 14, that of the Taif [Accord], of resolutions 1559 and 1701, of the international tribunal and Paris III" and the government of "March 8, a government rejecting Taif and the UN." Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc MP Hussein Hajj Hassan, speaking to reporters in Baalbek on Sunday, responded to Geagea's remarks, saying the LF leader has no right to make comparisons between a March 14 and March 8 government. "No other government exists but that which is seeking to usurp all authority," he said. Geagea "should have instead compared the February 14 government to that of May 17," Hajj Hassan said, referring to the US-sponsored bid on May 17, 1983, to forge a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon.

Parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri, speaking to Italian TV Rai Uno, said Saturday that the opposition in Lebanon does not want the tribunal established because it is defending the Syrian regime, which survives in the midst of strife, assassinations and terror. "This regime is fighting us in Lebanon because we are a moderate and democratic country with freedom of thought, which they consider a threat to their dictatorial regime," Hariri said. Hariri said that the Syrian regime has played a very negative role in the region, adding that they make promises they do not keep. He said Lebanon has tried to establish diplomatic relations with Syria and to start dialogue, but the Syrian regime closed all doors. Hariri said the problem lies with arms smuggling across the Syrian border to Lebanon, which gets to those "who wish to create strife in the country." But the MP discounted the likelihood of civil war in Lebanon, saying that neither Hizbullah nor the leadership of March 14 wanted such a conflict.
MP Walid Jumblatt, speaking during a tour of the Chouf town of Aley Sunday, said that the current government is that of the "Taif and we want the resistance to be under the control of the legal government." Both sides' statements came amid media reports that majority and opposition MPs met in Geneva over the weekend to hold talks on the current political crisis. But those reports were denied by both sides, according to An-Nahar. MPs Ayyoub Humayed, Samir Jisr, Farid Khazen Hussein Hajj Hassan, Antoine Saad and Yeghia Gergian went to Geneva last Tuesday to take part in a UNDP workshop on the role of the Parliament in Forging and Developing State Security Policies.

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