Arab League chief: Lebanese leaders closer to agreement

Pro-Hizbullah politicians holding up approval of Hariri assassination tribunal.

hizbullah protest 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
hizbullah protest 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Arab League Chief Amr Moussa said Wednesday there was progress in his efforts to bring rival Lebanese leaders to reach agreement on defusing political and sectarian tensions that threaten to tear the country apart. Moussa, who arrived in Beirut Tuesday amid continuing anti-government street protests by the pro-Syrian Hizbullah and its allies, met with several of the major players involved in the crisis, including Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. "Progress has been made at various (levels) in the package," Moussa told reporters, declining to go into details. He spoke after a meeting with Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. "No progress can be made unless all parties reach a common ground that includes gains and maybe concessions." The Shiite Muslim group Hizbullah and its allies are threatening to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora unless it is reformed to give them more power - enough to veto its decisions. Saniora, backed by anti-Syrian politicians who dominate parliament, has refused. The series of Hizbullah-led street protests has raised fears the political standoff could deteriorate into violence, exacerbating tensions between Lebanon's religious communities. "I tell the Lebanese people to hold to hope," Moussa told reporters after a meeting earlier Wednesday with Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon. His efforts, Moussa said, needed a "quiet diplomacy" on the principle of "no victor, no vanquished," to succeed. The standoff comes as Saniora's government is trying to push through approval of a UN-organized tribunal to try suspects in the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, which many in Lebanon blame on Syria. Saniora's Cabinet reaffirmed its approval of the tribunal Tuesday night, but it is being held up by the president and parliament speaker, both allies of Hezbollah and Syria. UN investigators into Hariri's death issued their latest report Tuesday, disclosing that they had uncovered links between his assassination and 14 other murders or attempted murders of prominent figures the past two years. The report said the investigation has identified suspects and witnesses, but did not reveal their names. The inquiry's head, Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, said in New York Tuesday that the probe has reached "a critical stage." Syria has denied any role in Hariri's assassination or other attacks. Hizbullah has insisted that approval of the controversial tribunal should wait until the standoff over the government is resolved. Moussa, on his second mediation mission to Beirut in the past two weeks, did not give details on the "common ground" proposals he was negotiating between the two sides. His visit follows a mediation effort by a top envoy from Sudan, which currently holds the Arab League chair. On his meeting with Nasrallah, Moussa was quoted by the As Safir newspaper as saying the Hizbullah leader had accepted some of his ideas but that there were a couple of points that needed more discussion. Government supporters say the opposition wants to undermine the creation of the international court. Hizbullah and its allies, on the other hand, say they are in principle for the tribunal but wanted to discuss its details. A report last year by Brammertz's predecessor implicated Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services and four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals have been under arrest for 15 months accused of involvement in Hariri's murder in a suicide truck bombing that also killed 22 other people. Many in Lebanon blamed Syria for Hariri's death and massive street protests coupled with an international outcry in the wake of the killing forced Syria to end its 29-year domination of its smaller neighbor. Syria has denied involvement in the killing. The Lebanese Cabinet reaffirmed its approval of the UN draft creating the Hariri tribunal Tuesday after President Emile Lahoud, a staunch pro-Syrian, refused to endorse an earlier Cabinet approval on Nov. 25. Lahoud maintains that the resignation of all five Shiite ministers rendered the Cabinet illegitimate. Saniora has countered the Cabinet was legal, having the necessary quorum to make decisions. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a close ally of Hizbullah, is expected to resist convening a session of the legislature to endorse the draft. Despite the street protests and Saniora's refusal to step down, both sides have expressed willingness to talk to draw the country away from the sectarian tones of the division. Lebanon's Sunni Muslims largely support the Sunni prime minister, and Shiite Muslims back Hizbullah. Christians are split.