Hizbullah gains veto power in Lebanon talks

Factions reach breakthrough deal in Qatar; Gen. Michel Suleiman to be elected president.

hizbullah rally 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
hizbullah rally 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Lebanon's feuding factions reached a breakthrough deal in Qatar Wednesday that ended the country's long political stalemate, but also gave Hizbullah and its allies the key power they sought - a veto over any decision of the US-backed government. Israeli defense officials said they were concerned that Hizbullah would use its newly-gained veto power in the Lebanese cabinet to prevent the renewal of UNIFIL's mandate this summer. The deal, reached with the help of Arab mediators, was immediately praised by Hizbullah backers Iran and Syria. But it seemed certain to accelerate fears in the West over Hizbullah's new power. Both sides agreed on Gen. Michel Suleiman, the army chief, as a consensus candidate. "It is a good deal that provides temporary power-sharing, that ends violence, that removes Hizbullah's protest tent city," Timur Goksel, a former UNIFIL spokesman who now lives in Lebanon, told reporters. "In all, a worthwhile conflict-management approach, but not one that solves the conflict." The deal, he said, had brought a sense of relief to the Lebanese people, who now foresee a calm summer. However, many also felt a sense of anger at their politicians for having taken so long to agree on solutions they felt were obvious. "The current regime can still claim it is standing up," Goksel said. "They president they agreed on will be in power, and they have a commitment from Hizbullah not to use its weapons internally." Pro-government parliament majority leader Saad Hariri seemed to acknowledge that his side had largely caved in the talks - spurred by a sharp outbreak of violence earlier this month after 18 months of deadlock. "I know that the wounds are deep and my injury is deep, but we only have each other to build Lebanon," he said after the deal was announced in Qatar. The parliament is now expected to elect a compromise president - the head of Lebanon's mostly neutral army - on Sunday, the state news agency reported. The Hizbullah-led opposition won both its demands with the deal: veto power in a new national unity government, and an electoral law dividing the country into smaller districts with the aim of better representation of the various sects. Hizbullah's chief negotiator, Muhammad Raad, downplayed the group's win. "Neither side got all it demanded, but [the agreement] is a good balance between all parties' demands," he said. Lebanon expert Nadim Shehadi argued that although the opposition had received the veto power as they wanted, the government had survived and been able to turn the conflict to its advantage. "Instead of being cornered domestically, where it is weak, [the government] has managed to move the resolution to the conflict to the international sphere, where it has more support," said Shehadi, who is an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs. The veto power, he added, will allow Lebanon's government to conduct day-to-day business - of which the vast majority is noncontroversial. Now that an agreement has been struck, "there will be a paralysis over 10 percent rather than 90%," Shehadi said. The Bush administration, meanwhile, seemed to try to put the best face on the deal. "We view this agreement as a positive step toward resolving the current crisis," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. "We call upon all Lebanese leaders to implement this agreement in its entirety." A few bursts of celebratory gunfire broke out in Beirut after the announcement. Television stations, which broadcast the Qatar ceremony live, showed Lebanese politicians and their Arab hosts congratulating and hugging one another. The mood in Beirut's streets was jubilant, with Lebanese, tired of the protracted deadlock, greeting each other with "Mabrouk" - "Congratulations" in Arabic. The talks in Qatar and the deal were a dramatic cap to a series of street clashes between pro-government groups and the opposition, in Beirut and elsewhere earlier this month. At least 67 people died. As Lebanon came close to an all-out war, Arab League mediators intervened and got the sides to agree to hold negotiations in Qatar on resolving the crisis that has paralyzed the country. Following the deal, opposition-allied Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said an opposition tent encampment across from the government building in downtown Beirut would be dismantled. Berri, who participated in the Doha talks, called that action a "gift" from the opposition and hailed the agreement. Within an hour, pickup trucks began hauling mattresses and supplies away from the encampment, which has paralyzed the commercial heart of the Lebanese capital for more than a year. Opposition supporters dismantled tents. In Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Muhammad Ali Hosseini said the deal was an "example of regional integration for achieving stability and tranquility." Syria also promptly endorsed the deal. "Lebanon's security and stability are important and vital to Syria's security and stability," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said the Lebanese should draw lessons from what had happened and called on them to reject violence. He also called on Arab states to help support Lebanese forces, which kept a neutral role during the latest clashes. "We must... pledge never to resort to arms to resolve our political differences," Saniora said at the Doha ceremony. "We should accept each other and hold dialogue to solve the problems. We want to live together, and we will continue that. We have no other choice." French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the deal was a "great success for Lebanon and all the Lebanese, whose courage and patience never failed despite the ordeals they have been through." Under the agreement - reached at dawn Wednesday and signed by both sides shortly before the Doha ceremony - the Syrian-backed opposition would get 11 seats in the cabinet, while 16 seats would go to the parliamentary majority and the remaining three would be distributed by the elected president. Previously, the opposition held six seats in the cabinet. The agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, said the factions "pledged to refrain" from taking up weapons to resolve disputes and that the "use of arms or violence is forbidden to settle political differences under any circumstances." The government sought a concession in Doha that Hizbullah would not again turn its guns on fellow Lebanese as it did in fighting earlier this month. But the broad clause referring to all Lebanese armed groups was apparently as much as it achieved. Lebanese Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said that while the "agreement forbids internal use of weapons," it also "calls for dialogue... on the whole subject of arms." Hamadeh also said both sides were satisfied with the new election law. The legislation is significant because it will determine how the sides distribute power in the capital and directly influence the outcome of the next parliamentary elections set for May 2009. Lebanon has been without a president since Emile Lahoud stepped down in November, and rival factions have been unable to resolve their differences over a future government. Hamadeh also said legislators from the parliament majority, who had been living abroad fearing for their safety after a wave of bombings targeting anti-Syrian lawmakers and politicians, would be asked to return to Beirut to vote for the president in parliament. The agreement was struck after host Qatar stepped up pressure Tuesday, offering the rival factions two drafts on how to end the deadlock and a day to consider the proposals. The standoff started when Hizbullah-led opposition lawmakers resigned from the government in November 2006 to protest the cabinet's refusal to grant them enough seats to ensure veto power. The Qatar deal was also a triumph for the tiny energy-rich Gulf state. The Lebanese stalemate had defied mediation efforts by other Arab and European countries, including shuttle diplomacy in the last year by the foreign minister of France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler.