/ 21 May 2008

Rival Lebanese sign deal to end crisis

Rival Lebanese leaders signed a deal on Wednesday to end 18 months of political conflict that had pushed their country to the brink of a new civil war.

The deal, concluded after six days of Arab-mediated talks in Qatar, paved the way for parliament to elect army chief General Michel Suleiman as president, filling a post vacant since November because of the political deadlock.

Lebanese Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said Suleiman would be elected president this week.

The deal between the United States-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition resolved a dispute over a parliamentary election law and met the opposition’s long-standing demand for veto power in the 30-member Cabinet.

”The parties agreed that the speaker of Parliament will call within 24 hours for the election of General Michel Suleiman as president of the republic,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani said, reading from the agreement at the signing ceremony in Doha.

Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, increased pressure on the ruling alliance this month by routing its followers in a military campaign. The Qatari-led negotiations in Doha built on mediation that ended violence in which 81 people were killed.

It was Lebanon’s worst civil conflict since the 1975 to 1990 war and exacerbated tensions between Shi’ites loyal to Hezbollah and Druze and Sunni followers of the ruling coalition.

”We have no future other than through internal unity,” Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a speech at the signing ceremony.

Increasing pressure

The anti-Damascus ruling coalition had long refused to meet the opposition’s demand for Cabinet veto power, saying the opposition was trying to restore Syrian control of Lebanon.

Syria was forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon in 2005 after former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated.

The United States held up the withdrawal as a foreign policy success. But the Hezbollah-led opposition has steadily been increasing pressure on Washington’s allies in Lebanon.

Opposition ministers quit Siniora’s Cabinet in November 2006 in protest at the governing alliance’s refusal to meet the demand for veto power.

The resignations stripped the cabinet of all its Shi’ite members and upset Lebanon’s delicate sectarian power-sharing system.

Hezbollah’s military campaign this month further increased pressure on the ruling alliance and forced the government to rescind two measures which the Shi’ite group viewed as hostile enough to justify a military response.

The opposition said it would immediately start removing a protest encampment that has paralysed Beirut’s central commercial district since December 2006.

”I announce, beginning from today, the lifting of the protest in central Beirut,” Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a leading member of the opposition, said at the signing ceremony.

The deal included a pledge by both sides not to use violence in political disputes, echoing a paragraph in an agreement drafted in Beirut that ended the fighting. – Reuters