Italian FM calls for consensus in Lebanon to break presidential election deadlock

D'Alema winds up talks with rival faction leaders, saying he's hopeful Lebanon will have new president by next week's deadline.

Italian FM 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Italian FM 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Italy's foreign minister said he was hopeful Lebanon will have a new president by next week's deadline and called on government and opposition leaders to reach a consensus in order to break the presidential election deadlock that threatens to rip the country apart. "We are trying for a new president who enjoys wide (popular) support on the basis of a consensus," Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told reporters Saturday as he left Lebanon, winding up daylong talks with rival faction leaders. D'Alema's visit was the latest attempt by international officials to get the country's feuding factions to agree on the election of a president and avoid a dangerous power vacuum. A day earlier, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that Lebanon could slide to "the brink of the abyss" if its leaders do not elect a new president. Rival Lebanese factions have failed to agree on a compromise president to succeed pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, who steps down on Nov. 24. Failure to elect the next president could result in a power vacuum and possibly, in the formation of two rival administrations. The Western-backed ruling coalition and the Hizbullah-led pro-Syrian opposition have been unable to agree on a candidate - sparking Lebanon's most serious political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. With no agreement yet, fears of trouble have gripped the country. Many rushed to supermarkets over the weekend to stock up on food. A US Embassy warden message advised Americans to be "especially vigilant" next Tuesday through Nov. 26, saying there was "the potential for demonstrations and violent actions in Lebanon" during the election period and political developments afterward. The message, issued on Friday, said the embassy has restricted the movement of its personnel, specifically in downtown Beirut near the parliament building and other government offices, and has restricted all but essential travel to Beirut airport during that period. The airport is in Hizbullah-dominated areas on the southern edge of the Lebanese capital. D'Alema's visit came a few days before parliament is to convene for another try to elect a president. Three attempts since September have failed so far. But the Italian foreign minister struck an upbeat note about the possibilities of success this time. "I think it is possible for Lebanon to have a president next week," he said. "This is my impression at the end of the day." D'Alema met Saturday with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, and with legislator Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority. He later met with Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, whose government has been locked for the past year in a fierce power struggle with the opposition. D'Alema also met with Gen. Michel Aoun, an opposition leader and a presidential candidate, as well as some Hizbullah legislators. "We confirmed to the Italian minister our support for a consensus on the presidential election," Hizbullah's Nawaf Mousawi told The Associated Press. D'Alema also held talks with Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church. Under Lebanon's political system, the president must be Maronite, the country's largest Christian sect. Sfeir was reported Saturday by local newspapers to have drawn up a list containing names of six presidential candidates, responding to international and local appeals to help in breaking the deadlock.