Arab League meets with Lebanese opponents

High-powered delegation mediates between Lebanese factions to try to end street confrontations.

lebanon clashes 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
lebanon clashes 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
A high-powered Arab League delegation mediated between Lebanese factions Wednesday to try to end street confrontations that have killed at least 54 people. No fighting was reported throughout the country but tensions lingered after Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah demonstrated its military power last week by seizing control of parts of Beirut in a showdown with the US-backed government. It was the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. A senior US military commander was also in the country meeting with Lebanese military leaders. The Cabinet convened for a special session Wednesday evening on whether revoke the two decisions that triggered days of fierce fighting between supporters of the government and the Hizbullah-led opposition. Hizbullah has demanded the government reverse the decisions to sack an airport security chief for alleged ties to the Shiite group and to declare the militants' private telephone network illegal. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said last week the decisions amounted to a declaration of war and sent his armed fighters into the streets for the first time since the civil war ended. A cease-fire largely halted the clashes on Monday. Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority leader, said Tuesday the two decisions that confronted Hizbullah should be revoked "to save Lebanon." The Arab League delegation arrived Wednesday with senior ministers of nine countries. They first met Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, and later had talks with Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Saniora's office described his talks with the delegation as "good and frank" but gave no more information. The delegation flew into Beirut airport - which has been blockaded by Hizbullah for a week and which opened temporarily only for the Arab ministers. Among those who received the ministers was airport security chief Maj. Gen. Wafiq Shukeir, who was at the center of the recent controversy. The airport is located in the Hizbullah stronghold of south Beirut. Unarmed Hizbullah men deployed along the edge of the airport highway ahead of the delegation's arrival. Bulldozers removed dirt mounds on the airport road to clear a path for the motorcade. Sunni Arab heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who back the Saniora government, were not represented in the delegation. Syria, which supports Hizbullah, was also not included. The three countries were considered too close to the opposing factions. Lebanon's strife has touched off a wider regional standoff between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and the world's largest Shiite nation, Iran. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned Iran its support for Hizbullah's "coup" in Beirut will damage Tehran's relations with Muslim and Arab countries. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retorted that Iran was the only country that does not interfere in Lebanon's internal affairs. US President George W. Bush, a strong ally of Saniora's government, told Al-Arabiya television Monday that Washington would keep up pressure on Iran and Syria. The US considers Hizbullah a terrorist organization. Acting chief of US Central Command, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, met Wednesday here with Lebanon's army commander and defense minister in a visit the US embassy in Beirut said "focused on the continued assistance" to the Lebanese military. Syria, which has been accused by US, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon's anti-Syrian coalition of obstructing parliament's election of a president since November, said it supported Arab efforts to resolve the crisis and called for a national dialogue to reach an agreement. But a Syrian official in Damascus said the crisis would not have happened "without incitement, patronage and funding" from abroad, and claimed the government decisions regarding Hizbullah were "pushed for by the Americans." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. In another sign of easing tensions, the main border crossing with Syria - closed by pro-government supporters in retaliation to Hizbullah's closure of the airport road - was reopened Wednesday. Bulldozers partly removed earth mounds and allowed motorists through.