Rival Lebanese leaders forge deal to end conflict

A01946028.jpgDOHA (Reuters) – Rival Lebanese leaders signed a deal on Wednesday to end 18 months of political conflict that had threatened to push the country to a new civil war.

The agreement, reached after six days of Arab-mediated talks, also paved the way for the election of a new president.

Parliament will convene on Sunday to elect army chief General Michel Suleiman as head of state, aides to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told Reuters in Qatar, where the feuding sides signed the accord.

The agreement between the U.S.-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition resolved a dispute over a law for holding 2009 parliamentary elections and met the opposition’s long-standing demand for veto power in cabinet.

It followed a Hezbollah military campaign this month against the ruling coalition which bolstered the opposition’s political strength. Hezbollah, a group backed by Iran and Syria, routed its rivals in six days of conflict that killed 81 and prompted the Qatari-led mediation.

The fighting was Lebanon’s worst civil conflict since the 1975-1990 war and exacerbated tensions between Shi’ites loyal to Hezbollah and Druze and Sunni supporters of the government.

“Today, we are opening a new page in Lebanon’s history,” said Saad al-Hariri, a Sunni politician who leads the governing coalition and has close ties to Saudi Arabia. His supporters were among those defeated by Hezbollah.

“I know the wounds are deep, but we have no one except each other,” said Hariri, who is regarded as a strong contender for prime minister in the new cabinet.

Hezbollah delegation leader Mohammed Raad said the deal would help “towards strengthening coexistence and building the state”.

Foreign backers of both sides, including the United States, France, Iran and Syria, welcomed the deal. Saudi Arabia was “happy” about the agreement, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon was quoted as saying by the National News Agency.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was a “positive step” towards resolving the crisis. Lebanese politicians say the search for a resolution has been complicated by the factions’ ties to competing foreign states.

Talal Salman, a commentator in the pro-opposition as-Safir newspaper, said the deal was a compromise that “could be transformed into a solid agreement. It redresses the balance in the no-victor, no-vanquished formula.”

POWER STRUGGLE

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 the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Saad al-Hariri’s father.

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

Opposition ministers quit Prime Minister Fouad 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 forced the government to rescind two measures which the Shi’ite group viewed as hostile enough to justify an armed response.

The opposition began to remove a protest encampment controlled by Hezbollah in central Beirut. The tent city, erected next to the government’s headquarters, has paralyzed the central commercial district since December 2006.

“Siniora let the country reach the point it did. We’ve been demanding the same thing for two years. They only agreed to give it to us yesterday,” said Hussein Fawwaz, an opposition activist who had been dismantling tents.

Under the deal both sides pledged not to use violence in political disputes. Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, who announced the deal in Doha, will attend Suleiman’s confirmation by parliament on Sunday.

The Lebanese leaders had considered holding the vote as early as Thursday, but postponed it until Sunday to allow Sheikh Hamad and other dignitaries to attend.

Once elected president, Suleiman will chair talks among the leaders on strengthening the Lebanese state.

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