Saturday, May 17, 2008

Qatari emir welcomes delegates to dialogue aimed at saving Lebanon

Qatari emir welcomes delegates to dialogue aimed at saving Lebanon
Sheikh Hamad emphasizes 'dangerous consequences' of failure

By Hussein Abdallah
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Lebanon's feuding political leaders gathered in Qatar Friday for Arab League-brokered talks aimed at ending a long-running crisis that drove the country to the brink of a new civil war. Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani read an opening statement late on Friday, welcoming the rival leaders and vowing to protect Lebanon's future by preserving its unity. Sheikh Hamad said that Qatar was looking forward to be a place where Lebanese leaders meet for fruitful talks. "We hope that consensus is reached so we can avoid dangerous consequences," he said before adjourning the opening ceremony and announcing that the first round of talks will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. The leaders arrived in Doha on a single plane, except for parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who took a private jet to Doha. Hizbullah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah did not go to Qatar, apparently for security reasons, but was represented by MP Mohammad Raad and other key figures from the resistance movement.

Earlier on Friday, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun told reporters at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport before boarding the plane to Doha that he had proposed to the Arab delegation the formation of a transitional government that would run the country in case the rival parties failed to reach an agreement. "I was not opposed to mentioning the name of the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces Michel Suleiman, as a consensus candidate for presidency, but I also proposed mentioning that a transitional government should be formed if the talks fail," Aoun said. The FPM leader added that all parties were in favor of adopting a qada-based electoral law for the next parliamentary elections. "There are many formulas in hand, but all are similar and based on the qada as an electoral constituency," he said. Also at the airport, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea advised Hizbullah not to expect to much during the talks in Doha. "I urge Hizbullah not to have high expectations because we will not take the military balance of power into consideration during the talks," he said, referring to the rout of pro-government gunmen by their opposition rivals last week.

The Lebanese leaders agreed Thursday to launch a dialogue as part of a six-point plan, following Arab League mediation led by Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani. Under the deal the rivals undertook "to shore up the authority of the Lebanese state throughout the country," to refrain from using weapons to further political aims and to remove militants from the streets. Qatar invited the rivals to Doha for talks to end a broader political standoff that has paralyzed government for 18 months and left Lebanon without a president since November. "We are going to Doha ... to come back, God willing, with an agreement that will allow Lebanese to look forward, benefiting from the past and its bitter experience," Siniora said before leaving. He added that there is no Lebanese party that can impose its will on other parties through the use of arms. "Violence will not lead to a solution ... It will rather complicate the crisis," he said.

Also Friday, the White House announced that Siniora has cancelled talks with US President George W. Bush in Egypt on Sunday so that he can deal with Lebanon's political crisis. Bush, who vowed last week to stand by Siniora and his pro-Western government despite the clashes, had been due to meet the prime minister on the sidelines of an economic forum in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, accompanying Bush on a visit to Saudi Arabia during a Middle East tour, said Siniora had dropped out of the talks "because of the situation on the ground" in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal voiced Riyadh's backing for the six-point agreement and called all Lebanese parties to commit to implementing it in its entirety. "All parties should commit to implementing the agreement, particularly the item that bans the use of arms by any party in Lebanon to achieve political aims," Saud said at a news conference in Riyadh. He added that any agreement should lead to enhancing the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, "which should control the decisions of war and peace." Asked whether Saudi Arabia was standing at the same distance from all parties in Lebanon, the Saudi foreign minister said that this was the case in principal, "but we cannot treat right and wrong equally ... and the use of arms in internal strife is wrong." Riyadh has been a staunch supporter of the Siniora government.

Syrian Foreign Minister told As-Safir newspaper on Friday that Syria supported the Arab-brokered agreement. He described the pact as "a real opportunity to save Lebanon from the dangers it faces," but warned against "international interference that could have negative impacts."

Who's there

BEIRUT: Lebanese delegates to the Doha talks include:

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and MPs Samir Azar and Ali Hassan Khalil and advisers Mahmoud Berri, Ali Hamdan and Ali Hamad.

Future Movement leader Saad Hariri and MPs Bassem Sabaa, Nabil De Freij, Samir Jisr, former MP Ghattas Khoury and political adviser Hani Hammoud.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and ministers Tarek Mitri, Khaled Qabbani, Michel Pharaon, Ahmad Fatfat and political advisers Mohammad Chatah, Radwan al-Sayyed, Roula Noureddine, and Aref al-Abed.

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat and ministers Ghazi al -Aridi, Marwan Hamadeh and MPs Nehme Tohme and Wael Bou Faour.

Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun and MPs Abbass Hashem, Nabil Nkoula, Farid Khazen, FPM political relations official Gibran Bassil and political advisers Mario Aoun and Jean Aziz.

Hizbullah MPs Mohammad Raad and Hussein al-Hajj Hassan and resigned Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Fneish.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and MPs George Adwan, Antoine Zahra and foreign affairs adviser Joseph Nehme.

Former President and Phalange Party leader Amin Gemayel and party members Chaker Aoun, Walid Fares, Elie Dagher, Sassine Sassine and political adviser Joseph Khalil.

Zahle's Popular Bloc head MP Elie Skaff and MP Salim Aoun.

Tripoli Bloc leader and Transport and Public Works Minister Mohammad Safadi.

MPs Michel Murr, Ghassan Tueini, Boutros Harb, Jawad Boulos and Hagop Pakradounian

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