Diplomatic ties, new army chief top Cabinet agenda

Posted in Broader Middle East | 21-Aug-08 | Author: Hussein Abdallah| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

BEIRUT: Lebanon's government will meet Thursday with two issues high on its agenda; appointing a new Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander and issuing an executive decree to establish diplomatic ties between Beirut and Damascus.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who visited President Michel Sleiman at the presidential palace on Wednesday, told reporters that a new army commander was likely to be appointed in Thursday's session.

Berri added that Sleiman had the biggest role in appointing a new army commander.

"The president knows all LAF officers and what would be in the army's best interests."

Berri said that the media has recently been exaggerating when speaking about differences on appointing a new army commander.

News reports on Wednesday said the candidates with the highest chances were Brigadier General George Khoury (head of army intelligence) and Brigadier General Jean Qahwaji.

Asked to comment on the upcoming national dialogue to be chaired by Sleiman, Berri said Lebanon's defense strategy was the major issue to be discussed during dialogue sessions.

"Earlier dialogue sessions dealt with most of the disputed issues. Back then, we were left with two issues; electing a new president and agreeing on a defense strategy," Berri said.

"We already elected a president and the defense strategy is all that is left ... when we start discussing the defense strategy, we will definitely touch on other related issues," he added.

Sleiman has not yet set a date for the upcoming dialogue.

Berri also asked Parliament Wednesday to convene for a legislative session on August 26.

The speaker said Parliament will look into 30 draft proposals in Tuesday's session.

"Among the proposals is drafting a new electoral law for the next parliamentary elections ... this proposal was made by MP Amin Sherri [Hizbullah]," Berri told reporters at Baabda.

The session will be the first of its kind in almost two years.

Parliament met on two occasions since the Lebanese parties signed a pact in Doha in May to end the country's 18-month political crisis.

The first meeting was aimed at electing a new president, while the second was aimed at granting the national unity government a vote of confidence.

Meanwhile, the LAF Command on Wednesday called on all media to avoid classifying army officers according to alleged political affiliations.

"Officers were only brought up on loyalty to the nation as a whole ... we will not accept unjustified intervention in the internal affairs of the military establishment," an army statement said.

"The military should be kept away from all forms of political disputes ... listing the names of candidates for the post of army commander according to alleged political allegiances is a direct offense against the army and its next commander," the statement added.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah's Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc said Wednesday all administrative and security appointments, including choosing a new army chief, should be done in a spirit of consensus.

"Consensus should be the guide for all such decisions," the bloc said following its weekly meeting.

Addressing Lebanese-Syrian relations, the bloc said establishing diplomatic ties between Beirut and Damascus will enhance cooperation and coordination between "the two brotherly states."

"Both states should be aware of the dangers that threaten their stability and should therefore work together to achieve their common goals," the bloc added.

Also on Wednesday, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri warned against attempts to create Sunni-Christian differences and said granting more privileges for the deputy premier had no constitutional backing.

"It is the right of any faction to demand a constitutional amendment to provide the deputy premier with powers, but this can only be achieved through a constitutional mechanism," Hariri said in a statement released by his press office.

The parliamentary majority leader also denounced the "ongoing campaign" against Premier Fouad Siniora as "an attempt to fabricate differences between Sunnis and Christians.

"It is clear to everyone that this campaign aims at taking the country to another sectarian clash ... we care to emphasize that we would never get involved in such a clash," Hariri said.

"The parties who are proposing giving the deputy premier more privileges want to arrive at having two prime ministers for the same Cabinet," he added, referring to Free Patriotic Movement [FPM] leader MP Michel Aoun, who proposed earlier this week granting the deputy prime minister more constitutional privileges.

The current deputy prime minister is retired general Issam Abu Jamra, a former military comrade of Aoun and a senior FPM member.

In remarks published in Lebanese As-Safir newspaper on Wednesday, Abu Jamra said the he wanted to get himself an office at the Grand Serial in order to "keep an eye on Siniora."

"I will not accept to play a marginal role in the government," he said.