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Lebanon factions agree to talk on a new government

May 16, 2008|Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Lebanese factions took another major step toward calming a flare-up of sectarian and political violence by agreeing Thursday to immediately resume long-stalled talks on a new government.

The deal, brokered by a visiting delegation of Arab League diplomats, appeared to be a victory for the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah, which leads opposition to the U.S.-backed government and the so-called March 14 movement behind it. Hezbollah fighters occupied parts of Beirut last week, forcing concessions from the administration of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"Politically, it's obvious that the opposition won the first round," said Karim Makdisi, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "March 14 is in a state of strategic retreat," he said. "They will come back, but they recognize that they lost for now."

For decades, Lebanon's Christians, Druze, Shiites and Sunni Muslims, along with foreign governments supporting the factions, have jostled for power over this mountainous Mediterranean country. A 1975-90 civil war devastated the nation, and the end of an occupation by Syrian troops in 2005 merely invigorated the domestic political fight.

Last week's fighting, which pushed the country toward another civil war, was triggered by a government decision to target Hezbollah's intelligence and communications networks. Hezbollah briefly occupied West Beirut and firefights broke out throughout the country.

The government rescinded the decisions late Wednesday, setting the stage for Thursday's deal.

After the announcement, bulldozers began removing piles of debris set up last week by Hezbollah supporters to block major roadways, including those leading to the country's sole international airport. Lebanon's Middle East Airlines announced that it would resume regular commercial flights.

As part of the deal, Lebanon's feuding pro-Western and Iranian-backed camps agreed to meet today in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar.

Top agenda items include a new election law and the composition of a new Cabinet. Both were issues that Hezbollah had demanded be resolved before it and its allies would agree on naming a new president and ending an 18-month civil disobedience campaign that has shut down the capital's glittery downtown and paralyzed the government.

The government and the Bush administration had demanded that Hezbollah and its allies agree to name army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman as president before any hot-button issues could get resolved. The deadlock has left Lebanon without a president for nearly six months, raising fears that the country would descend into civil war.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad Jassim ibn Jaber al Thani, who emerged as the diplomatic powerhouse behind the deal, said he was optimistic that Suleiman would be sworn in. The Christian army chief appears to have the trust of all sides.

"We expect the election of a president within days," Hamad said.

March 14 proponents tried to put a positive spin on the agreement. "We showed maximum flexibility to show the Arabs and the whole world that we do not want civil war in the country," said Nabil Freij, a pro-government lawmaker.

Indeed, holding negotiations under the Arab umbrella gives March 14 assurances that Hezbollah won't renege on a deal, said Sami Nader, a professor of political science at St. Joseph's University in Beirut. "They have some suspicions about the intentions of the other party," he said "Now they have a guarantor."

The agreement also bars Lebanese groups from using weapons to achieve domestic political ends, a slight jab at Hezbollah. Unlike other militias, Hezbollah was allowed to keep its heavy weapons at the end of the civil war -- but only to fight an Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000. It now insists that it needs the arms to resist what it calls Israeli aggression.

Hezbollah said the Cabinet decision to target its telecommunications and intelligence capacities was tantamount to challenging its weapons and made the government's supporters fair game.

"There's one real issue, and that's the question of Hezbollah's arms," said Makdisi, the American University professor. "That's the only red line. As long as Hezbollah has guarantees that the next government will not tackle the issue of its armaments, all the rest is flexible."

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daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi is a Times staff writer and Rafei a special correspondent.

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