Lebanese leaders meet amid sharp divisions

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s rival leaders on Thursday overcame differences relating to the consequences of the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri as they sat together for the first time to resolve divisions that still remain following the end of Syrian domination.The leaders — Muslim and Christian, pro- and anti-Syrian — agreed to leave the contentious issue of Hariri’s assassination last year to the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to follow up, apparently overcoming the objections of pro-Syrian factions.

“It was unanimously decided that the decisions of the government pertaining to this (assassination) and related issues … be followed up by the Lebanese government,” said Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a pro-Syrian politician who called the conference.

A UN probe is investigating last year’s truck bombing that killed Hariri and 20 others, and the government has demanded an international tribunal to try the suspects in the case. It also sought the UN probe’s help in investigating the spate of bombings that hit Lebanon since October, killing in all 33 people.

Pro-Syrian factions, some of whom are represented in the Cabinet, had originally objected to expanding the Hariri probe and to forming an international tribunal but the government voted for it anyway. Thursday’s decision appears to settle the matter.

But the leaders may not be able to bridge a gulf that remains very wide over thorny issues such as the fate of the pro-Syrian president and Hizbollah’s weapons.

An evening session was expected to witness tough haggling and bargaining between the pro- and anti-Syrian leaders over renewed calls by the anti-Syrian coalition for President Emile Lahoud’s resignation and for Hizbollah, the group fighting Israel, to disarm.

Those issues alone could derail the most serious attempt to reach a compromise solution to Lebanon’s worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

About 35 key leaders and aides gathered in the first meeting of its kind since the end of nearly three decades of Syrian control, which was terminated with Damascus’ troop withdrawal last year following Hariri’s assassination last year.

Reporters were not allowed into the building. Pictures showed the leaders smiling and shaking hands.

Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who controls the largest parliamentary bloc, Druse political leader Walid Jumblatt, Shiite Muslim Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Michel Aoun, a Christian who leads the parliamentary opposition, and Christian leader Samir Geagea were among the politicians who took part. Nasrallah and Geagea are meeting for the first time.

The only major politician not invited was Lahoud, who has rejected calls to step down.

“The atmosphere is not only serious, it’s a positive one despite the varying positions,” Berri told reporters after the three-hour opening session.

“We are coming out of the meeting happy,” Aoun told the Associated Press after the morning session.

Earlier, Berri warned of the dangers of failure.

“We are doomed to success. Failure is forbidden because its consequences are grave,” he told As-Safir newspaper in comments published Thursday.

When organising the conference, Berri set three main topics: Pressing to uncover the culprits who killed Hariri, a UN resolution calling for disarmament of all militias, and Lebanese-Syrian relations, now are at their lowest point. Other issues, such as the call for Lahoud’s resignation — also could be discussed, he said.

Hizbollah — the main focus of the UN resolution — has rejected local and international calls to disarm.

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