Kouchner back in Beirut for last-minute mediation

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrived in Beirut on Sunday night for his sixth visit to the country since May, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned political leaders in a bid to push Lebanon’s feuding political camps toward a consensus presidential candidate. Parliament is scheduled to meet on Wednesday for the electoral session, three days before the term of incumbent Emile Lahoud expires. Foreign diplomatic efforts have intensified as time dwindles, with the March 14 ruling coalition and the March 8 opposition having spent months in fruitless negotiations to find a consensus chief executive.

Rice on Sunday called Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri, the National News Agency said.  In addition to Kouchner, Arab League chief Amr Moussa should also return to Lebanon this week to push for consensus president.

One week ago, Kouchner convinced Sfeir to draw up a list of presidential candidates from which the squabbling leaders could pick consensus candidates to vote on in Parliament. The list has been sent to Berri and Hariri, who met on Saturday night discuss it, according to a joint statement released by Hariri’s office. “The atmosphere of discussions was positive and boosted the chances of consensus on the presidency,” said the statement.

The statement also mentioned that Berri and Hariri had agreed to keep their meetings and discussions “open” in order to reach an agreement within the constitutional timeframe on a “consensus president from the list drawn up by Sfeir.”

The names on the list have yet to be made public, although many reports agree that MP Butros Harb and former MP Nassib Lahoud, both of March 14, and MP Michel Aoun, leader of the opposition Free patriotic Movement, are on it. Other commonly mentioned  names include MP Robert Ghanem; Banque du Liban Governor Riad Salameh; former central bank chief Michel Khoury; former Minister Michel Edde; and the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman. There were also reports that Kouchner had added another name to the list.

Hariri and Berri met hours after Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema visited Beirut. D’Alema – who met Sfeir, Berri, Hariri, Siniora, Aoun, Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea and some Hizbullah MPs – said he was optimistic but warned that even if the leaders could agree on a new president, “everything could still go wrong.”

“We are trying for a new president who enjoys wide support on the basis of a consensus,” D’Alema told reporters on Saturday as he left Lebanon.

D’Alema’s visit was the latest attempt by international officials to avoid a dangerous power vacuum. On Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that Lebanon could slide to “the brink of the abyss” if its leaders did not elect a new president.

At the same time, Siniora urged all sides to concentrate  on holding the presidential vote as soon as possible.

“The focus should now be on completing the presidential election and on handing over the government to the new president and to Parliament,” Siniora told the Voice of Lebanon radio on Sunday.

The premier stressed the importance of conducting the presidential elections according to the Constitution, as any other means would not be “for the good of Lebanon.”

“There is a French initiative under way with the support and coordination from our Arab brothers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries,” he said, adding the importance of “good relations” with Syria and Iran.

Siniora denied reports that meetings occurred in London with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank over how to deal with the possibility of two governments in Lebanon.

“There is only one legal and constitutional government, and there is no way that there will be two governments in Lebanon,” he said.

Widespread fear persists that the dispute over the presidency could lead to two rival governments, echoing the dark final years of Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War.

Siniora also stressed that “no other army” would be allowed back into Lebanon to replace the Syrian one that left in 2005 after a 29-year presence. “We wanted the Syrian Army out -  not to be replaced by any other army, not French or Iranian or Egyptian or Saudi,” he said.

Siniora also noted that Lebanese territory remained occupied by Israel, and this was one of the main issues to be discussed once a new head of state was elected.

Moussa called Siniora and Berri to prepare for his visit this week.

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