Lebanon's 14 feuding factions meet for talks outside Paris

Sunday, July 15, 2007

PARIS -- Lebanon's rival parties met in a French chateau Saturday for unusual and long-awaited talks meant to ease a political and sectarian crisis threatening to rip apart their country.

The closed meetings, organized by France with U.S. and Iranian approval, were not expected to break the political deadlock between the Western-backed prime minister and the Hezbollah-led opposition. But participants applauded the talks.

"It is exceptional to be meeting again, after all the obstructions," said pro-Hezbollah legislator Ibrahim Kenaan, representing Christian leader Michel Aoun. "I think we can have real dialogue."

The weekend meetings at La Celle Saint Cloud, west of Paris, mark the first meeting of the 14 parties since a November conference failed to resolve the tensions. Since then, the country's worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war has only deepened.

Parliament and government barely function. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora refuses to step down and is in a fierce power struggle with the Hezbollah-led, pro-Syrian opposition.

Hezbollah almost backed out of the talks, after French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the Shiite Muslim group a terrorist organization. Sarkozy's office later "clarified" his statement.

The talks have no agenda. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and other French diplomats were there as observers, not mediators.

France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, is playing a delicate diplomatic game. French envoys discussed plans for the meetings with American and Iranian counterparts -- and won their grudging approval -- but came under criticism for not vetting them with Syria, Lebanon's longtime overseer.

France has strong ties with some rival factions and hopes to encourage dialogue, but is keen not to dominate the negotiations.

Critics say France and Kouchner are seeking the limelight, as no breakthrough at the talks is expected.

They will be closely followed in Lebanon, however, for any sign of softening positions -- or failure, which would deepen the country's instability.

The Hezbollah-led, pro-Syrian opposition has been trying to bring down Saniora's government for months. The crisis began when all five Shiite Cabinet members and a Christian ally quit the government in November. The opposition refuses to recognize Saniora's government, because the constitution requires Cabinet representatives from all major sects.

Pro-Syrian parliament speaker Nabih Berri has refused to allow the legislature to convene for months.

The increasingly sectarian crisis has erupted into street clashes between pro- and anti-government factions earlier this year.

"It is already a step forward that the meeting is taking place," said Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, representing pro-Western Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. "We shouldn't set ambitions that are too high. But the French have had success where others have not."

During last summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel, France pushed for the U.N. resolution for a cease-fire and peacekeeping force for Lebanon.

A key opposition demand is the creation of a new national unity government in which it has veto power, a move Saniora resists.

A political crisis also looms over the presidency. The legislature must vote on a replacement for pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud before a November 23 deadline, but an agreement on a candidate is unlikely -- threatening a power vacuum or the creation of two rival governments.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese army has been battling Islamic militants in a Palestinian refugee camp in the north for weeks, in fighting that has killed at least 60 militants and 20 civilians. In the south, U.N. troops trying to bring peace to the Lebanese-Israeli border after last year's war fear more violence.

Lebanon has also been shaken by a string of bombings and assassinations in the past two years targeting mainly anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.

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