Saniora extends hand to Hizbullah

Lebanon's Western-backed PM calls for political settlement to deadlock.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Lebanon's Western-backed prime minister extended a hand to the opposition on Saturday, urging pro-Hizbullah officials to work to resolve the political crisis and asked the Arab League chief to come to Lebanon to resume contacts between feuding politicians. Embattled Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who returned to Lebanon Friday night after attending an international donors' conference in Paris, urged his political opponents to work toward ending the political deadlock, saying the alternative was too "frightening." A statement by Saniora's office said he telephoned Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri - both pro-Syrian officials and supporters of the Hizbullah-led opposition. Saniora has not had direct contacts with the two for weeks. His calls followed deadly clashes in Beirut this week between pro and anti-government supporters that killed at least three people and injured dozens, after mobs faced off with guns, homemade clubs and stones in the worst factional fighting in Lebanon in years. "We have to find a way to meet again, because it is the only way to avoid painful experiences," Saniora said. The conference in Paris raised some $7.6 billion to help rebuild Lebanon's economy, ravaged after last summer's 34-day war between Hizbullah and Israel. "What happened in Paris is an opportunity that will not be repeated and we have to take advantage of it," Saniora added. Also Saturday, a Saniora aide said the prime minister had also contacted Arab League chief Amr Moussa before leaving Paris, asking him to come to Lebanon as soon as possible to "revive contacts between Lebanese leaders and an Arab initiative" to settle the Lebanese crisis. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements, said Moussa, who is currently in Davos, Switzerland, expressed readiness to return to Lebanon but that no date has been set. Moussa tried to mediate between Lebanese leaders during visits in December but failed to resolve the crisis. Arab League spokesman Hesham Youssef could not confirm Moussa's return to Lebanon but said it was possible. "The idea of returning to Lebanon exists, but it depends on the parties expressing some flexibility toward the proposed ideas to get out of this crisis," Youssef said Saturday. Saniora's closest ally, Sunni leader Saad Hariri, also said he was ready to work with his foes for a settlement, especially after the outcome of the Paris conference. "The world has stood by us. It is not acceptable that we let ourselves, our brothers and friends down," he said in a statement Friday night. A rare curfew in Beirut was lifted early Friday, imposed after factions supporting the Western-backed government and Hizbullah protesters trying to bring it down turned a university campus into a battle zone a day earlier. Lebanon's military commander, General Michel Suleiman, also urged a resolution of the crisis to "avoid more bloodshed," saying in comments published in the As-Safir daily on Saturday, that his troops were over-stretched and "under pressure" as a result of months of political tensions. Talks between the Hizbullah-led opposition and Saniora's government broke down in November over the militant group's demands for greater power. Hizbullah grew emboldened after the war with Israel this summer. The Shi'ite Muslim Hizbullah has kept relentless pressure on Saniora's administration, which is backed by Sunni Muslims and smaller Christian allies. On Tuesday, roadblocks by Hizbullah and its opposition allies brought most of Lebanon to a standstill as they enforced a general strike aimed at forcing Saniora to step down. The showdown has forced Lebanon's patchwork of religious groups and factions to choose sides - as they did during the devastating 1975-90 civil war, during which about 150,000 people were killed. Then, it was mostly Muslims against Christians. Now, it's a power struggle pitting Sunnis against Shi'ites with Christians split between the two sides. The turmoil also has made Lebanon a stage for wider Middle East proxy struggles with Iran and Syria backing Hizbullah, and Washington and allies hoping to keep Saniora in power.