Lebanon leaders make progress at crisis talks — Berri

BEIRUT (Reuters) — Rival Lebanese leaders made some progress in talks on Thursday on a Hizbollah demand for more say in the Western-backed Cabinet that would give the pro-Syrian party effective veto power over the government.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hizbollah ally who convened the talks, said there was no agreement on a proposal to extensively reshuffle the government but that “some progress” had been made paving the way for another meeting on Saturday.

“I confirm to you that today’s session was the best of all,” Berri told reporters.

“What I didn’t realise myself before the consultations was that confidence had reached a level where it was missing… What has happened is a return of confidence,” Berri told reporters.

He said hurdles remained but hoped an announcement could be made on Saturday.

Hizbollah, which claimed victory in its war with Israel in July and August, has led calls for a change in the government dominated by anti-Syrians from the majority bloc in parliament.

The party, which is popular with Lebanon’s large Shiite community, has threatened mass demonstrations demanding new parliamentary elections unless more of its allies are admitted to the Cabinet by mid-November.

Hizbollah accuses Prime Minister Fuad Siniora of failing to back it during the war and of supporting US and Israeli demands for the disarmament of its fighters. Resuming crisis talks that began on Monday, the leaders debated a proposal to increase the number of portfolios in the Cabinet to 26 from 24 and give Hizbollah and its allies nine ministers instead of five now, political sources said.

That ratio would give the opposition effective veto power over Cabinet motions and allow them to automatically bring the government down if they resigned.

The United States and its allies in Lebanon are not keen to see Hizbollah, which Washington regards as a terrorist organisation, to have more influence over the government.

Give and take

Leaders from the anti-Syrian camp were not satisfied with the proposal but political sources said cracks were beginning to appear in the coalition.

They said they are willing to include representatives of Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, a Hizbollah ally, but not to give up the key third of cabinet seats to the opposition.

As they left the talks, anti-Syrian politicians who now dominate the government said a deal was not yet within reach.

“The dish is not yet cooked,” said Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party in the anti-Syrian camp. “The side that wants to change or reshuffle the government does not accept to discuss change at the level of the presidency. There has to be give and take … There has not been major progress but we are trying.” The anti-Syrian bloc wants to unseat President Emile Lahoud, whom it considers a Syrian stooge unable to properly represent the interests of his Maronite Christian community. Rival demonstrations by the pro- and anti-Syrian camps would further destabilise Lebanon and could degenerate into violence.

The killing of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 led to mass protests against Syria, which many Lebanese blamed for the assassination. Damascus denies any involvement.

Under international pressure, Syria ended a 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbour in April last year and anti-Syrian politicians swept to victory in ensuing elections

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