Berri invites political elite for talks on unity government, new electoral law

Posted in Broader Middle East | 26-Oct-06 | Author: Nada Bakri| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Speaker warns that tension may 'lead to confrontations in the street'

BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri called on Lebanon's rival political leaders Wednesday to meet for "consultation meetings" to diffuse rising tensions threatening the country's stability.

Berri, who also heads the Amal movement, urged Lebanon's political elite to hold talks for a maximum period of 15 days, starting Monday, to discuss the formation of a national unity government and a new electoral law.

"I believe this tension and this escalation will lead to confrontations in the Lebanese street," the speaker told a news conference in Beirut.

"We know of the vertical and horizontal divisions in the country, and I don't want to say sectarian, so we're trying to keep the issue restricted among us [the leaders] and through dialogue," he said.

Hizbullah and its allies have demanded since the recent war with Israel ended on August 14 that a national unity government be formed including more of its allies, especially the Free Patriotic Movement headed by opposition MP Michel Aoun.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the March 14 Forces, backed by the West, have rejected these calls, prompting Hizbullah and its allies to threaten to take to the streets to force a change.

Many anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon blamed Hizbullah for the war, which cost some 1,200 Lebanese civilians their lives and inflicted physical damage worth $3.5 billion.

Disputes have also increased between those who want to avoid future military entanglements with Israel and demand Hizbullah lay down its arms, and those who support the group's role as a legitimate resistance.

Fears are also rising that sectarian splits are deepening in Lebanon, especially between Shiites, who overwhelmingly support Hizbullah, and Sunnis, who helped lead the campaign for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon after last year's assas-sination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, issued his latest call for a national unity government on Friday in what was seen as a bid to turn the popular acclaim his fighters won during the war with Israel into greater national political power.

Aoun said earlier this month that Siniora's government was "corrupted and is squandering the money of the state and the people. It lacks representation."

Berri said that Nasrallah, whom some Israeli officials have said is still a target for assassination, will have the choice to send a representative to the consultations to be held in the Parliament building in Downtown Beirut on Monday.

The speaker said he had not contacted any leader in advance about his proposal.

While Siniora was the first to endorse Berri's initiative, affirming his participation, the anti-Syrian and the pro-Syrian forces said they needed to hold consultations among their leaderships before deciding.

"I would like to express my appreciation and support for Speaker Berri's initiative, for I believe any calm dialogue will contribute in national peace and national prosperity," Siniora said in a statement.

The premier said the talks should also tackle decisions reached during the national dialogue sessions that were held in March - and were also sponsored by Berri - and the means to implement them.

The national dialogue sessions were abandoned in June without achieving any concrete results over some of the most dividing and controversial topics facing Lebanon, including the fate of embattled pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, Hizbullah's arsenal and strained Lebanese-Syrian relations.

The prime minister also said his seven-point plan - which helped shape the UN Security Council resolution that ended the war - should be the base for these consultations.

"It is my duty to hold consultations with my allies, the March 14 Forces, and we will try to come up with a decision as soon as possible," Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said following a meeting with Berri on Wednesday.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said the agenda for the talks was "incomplete," adding he would also announce his decision after consultations with the March 14 Forces.

"After all that happened in the country, consultations should start with the July war ... We should start working on how to prevent the repetition of such events and how to spare Lebanon a new Israeli aggression," Geagea added.

March 14 MP Boutros Harb welcomed Berri's plan.

"I support this initiative ... We should respond to it positively because it is an invitation for consultations and dialogue among Lebanese," Harb told reporters following a meeting with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir.

A Hizbullah spokesperson said the party "responds positively to all consultations and dialogue initiatives," but added that the final decision of whether or not to attend would be made on Thursday.

FPM MP Ibrahim Kanaan said the talks aimed to tackle "two dividing issues which require consultations with the opposite parties."

However, he added that the Reform and Change bloc would announce whether it will participate later this week. - Agencies