Monday, March 10, 2008

Lebanon set to delay presidential vote again

Lebanon set to delay presidential vote again
By Hussein Abdallah
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Both government and opposition MPs said Sunday that they expect Lebanon's oft-postponed presidential vote, scheduled to take place in Parliament on Tuesday, to be delayed for a 16th time. The country has been without a head of state since Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term, extended under Syrian pressure in 2004, at midnight on November 23. "Tuesday's session, like all previous sessions that were scheduled, will be delayed," opposition Hizbullah MP Hassan Hoballah told AFP. MP Wael Bou Faour of the ruling March 14 Forces coalition made a similar prediction - and accused the opposition of blocking a solution, especially mediation by Arab League chief Amr Moussa, under orders from Damascus. "The election is tied to a political agreement. I do not expect a session on Tuesday because the same obstacles remain," he said. "The Syrian regime is increasing its demands as occurred with Amr Moussa during his recent visit. "There are efforts under way from an Arab party," the legislator added, "but until now it is still impossible."

Moussa has made several trips to Lebanon to try to break the impasse between the majority, backed by the West and most Arab states, and the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran. His efforts have failed thus far, although the Arab initiative is still on the table. Local press reports on Saturday said Moussa was not planning to visit Beirut again any time soon. But Sports and Youth Minister Ahmad Fatfat said there was a slight chance Lebanon would elect a president on March 25. He told The Daily Star Sunday that his prediction was not based on his own personal analysis. "It is more than that. It is based on information" from sources close to Speaker Nabih Berri, Fatfat said. The speaker's media adviser, Ali Hamdan, was less optimistic. "We wish Fatfat's prophecy would come true," Hamdan told The Daily Star. Nonetheless, he said there was hope that progress would be achieved during the upcoming summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Senegal. "Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states will be present in the summit. It will be a chance for them to hold some talks, which might result in a breakthrough," Hamdan explained. He added that possible talks during the OIC event might also help ensure that the Arab League summit, scheduled for March 29 and 30 in Damascus, would not be a disaster.

Meanwhile, the saudi-owned Al-Hayat daily quoted Arab diplomatic sources as saying that Iran wants "organized vacuum in Lebanon" by leaving the presidency empty until the 2009 parliamentary polls. "The Iranians prefer to delay Lebanon's presidential election to after a new US president is elected," the sources said. The current occupant of the White House, George W. Bush, leaves office in January 2009. Also Sunday, a Syrian delegation delivered an invitation to regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia to join the Damascus summit, the kingdom's official Saudi Press Agency said. The invitation, which was delivered to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, had been slow to come amid strained ties between Riyadh and Damascus over the deep political crisis in Lebanon. Lebanon is yet to be invited to the Damascus summit.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem has said that Lebanon will be invited, but he has not specified how and when the invitation will be delivered. Earlier reports said the invitation would be handed over to Lebanon's representative at the Arab League, but Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said last week that the invitation should be formally delivered by a Syrian minister to the Lebanese government in Beirut. Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, discussed the situation in Lebanon at Damascus airport on Saturday, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said. Mottaki discussed the same issues with Prince Saud at Cairo's airport last Wednesday. Moallem and Mottaki were joined by Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem to discuss these and other matters in Damascus on Saturday. Siniora also discussed the latest developments on Lebanon's political scene with Moussa and Saudi Ambassador Abdel Aziz Khoja on Sunday. Also on Sunday, Progressive Socialist Party leader and March 14 stalwart Walid Jumblatt discussed the latest developments in Lebanon and the region with US Charge d'Affaires Michele Sison. - With AFP

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