Beirut talks adjourn to mull fate of Lahoud

Posted in Broader Middle East | 04-Apr-06 | Author: Nada Bakri| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

President's fate should be decided on April 28

Lebanese national Dialogue round 5 - only session

BEIRUT: Lebanon's political elite has set a deadline of April 28 to agree on the fate of President Emile Lahoud, after which the issue of Hizbullah's military wing will be addressed.

The ongoing national dialogue is set to end on April 30. Speaker Nabih Berri, the dialogue's sponsor and spokesperson, announced the decision after the fifth round of the talks, held Monday. This week's session lasted for four hours. The next session will be on the 28th.

"We discussed the presidential issue thoroughly and transparently, as we have been doing for the past three sessions, and we have agreed to delay the dialogue session until Friday, April 28, to decide the issue of the presidency, positively or negatively," Berri said during a press conference.

The speaker said that the country's leading politicians would try to agree on whether or not to ask Lahoud to resign, but added that should there be no agreement on the matter, the file would be closed and the dialogue would move on to Hizbullah's arms, a topic of considerable disagreement.

"April 28 will be the last round of talks on the issue of the presidency. Afterward we will move on to discuss the arms of Hizbullah and hopefully reach a consensus over it," the Amal movement leader said.

Berri stressed that a "negative or positive decision on the presidential issue will not affect other topics during the talks," namely the resistance, the only other remaining issue.

The March 14 Forces have lobbied for the removal of Lahoud, whom they consider the last remaining symbol of Syria's domination over Lebanon, in addition to calling for Hizbullah's disarmament.

Berri said that the near-month-long delay was due to upcoming holidays and several politicians' commitments abroad. Berri himself is scheduled to be out of the country for 10 days beginning Sunday.

A source close to the Amal leader said "the speaker had initially considered shortening his trip, but when he realized things were not heading toward reaching any consensus, he dropped that consideration."

The fifth round of the dialogue followed a televised spat between Lahoud and several March 14 ministers during last Thursday's Cabinet session.

A heated debate had also erupted earlier in the week between Lahoud and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora during the Arab League summit in Khartoum over a statement supporting "Lebanon's resistance." Siniora had wanted to change the wording to "the Lebanese people's right to resistance."

Both incidents galvanized the political divide in Lebanon, fueling widespread expectation that Monday's dialogue session would be largely ceremonial.

According to one source who participated in the talks, "after what happened today during the session, and after last week's developments, nothing will be reached."

The source said that Siniora and the leader of Hizbullah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, had argued over the Khartoum incident, which led to "a dry atmosphere at the dialogue table."

Other sources described the fifth session as "literally a waste of time."

Berri told local newspapers that the question of replacing Lahoud was further complicated by the fact that "there are no names (for a new president) on the dialogue table so far."

However, MP Boutros Harb told reporters that participants had discussed potential candidates, adding that he and MP Michel Aoun were among those proposed. Other suggested names included Democratic Renewal Movement leader Nassib Lahoud and Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad.

Meanwhile, Siniora was said to be preparing for meetings with Syrian officials on decisions reached earlier in the dialogue, namely establishing diplomatic ties and demarcating the border between the two countries.

During the press conference after Monday's session, Berri vowed to "offer any kind of assistance" Siniora required in his efforts to mend Lebanese-Syrian relations.