Syrian demand to change Lebanese parliament makeup nixed

In emergency meeting in Cairo, Arab foreign ministers reject Walid Moallem's demand to give Hizbullah equal power in Lebanese parliament.

Arab foreign ministers have rejected Syria's demand that Hizbullah and its allies have greater influence in Lebanon's Cabinet, according to delegates at an emergency meeting in Cairo. Participants at the Arab League meeting late Sunday said the majority of ministers rejected Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem's request for a new formula for Lebanese politics. Moallem - and some in Lebanon's opposition - had pushed for Hizbullah and its allies to have 10 ministers in the next Cabinet - or one-third of the seats - an equal number to what the majority and the new president should get in a 30-member Cabinet. That proposal would effectively deprive the majority of passing major decisions without a consensus that would require bringing the president's ministers or those of the opposition on their side. Two delegates at the meeting confirmed the information, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. They spoke to The Associated Press by telephone while the meeting was still under way. Only Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgam backed the Syrian proposal, the officials said. Arab League Chief Amr Moussa said during his recent mediation in Lebanon that an Arab initiative to solve the crisis would give the opposition 10 seats, the majority 13 and the president seven. Moussa's interpretation of the formula was rejected by the Lebanese opposition. But the dispute runs deeper than representation and numbers, and involves the larger dispute between Syria and Iran on one side, who support Lebanon's opposition, and the United States and pro-US Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who back the Lebanese majority coalition, on the other. Lebanon is embroiled in its worst political crisis since the end of its 1975-90 civil war. Former President Emile Lahoud left office on Nov. 23 without a successor, and parliament has so far failed to elect the army chief to replace him amid bickering between the parliament majority and the opposition. At a news conference after Sunday's meeting, Moussa predicted further violence if Lebanon did not elect a new president by Feb. 11 - a date set by the parliament speaker last week. Earlier in the day, seven people were killed in Beirut during riots by opposition supporters protesting the government's rationing of electricity. "If blood spills over into the streets, chaos will prevail and there will be different positions and many forces will interfere," Moussa told reporters. The Arab League chief put particular blame for the crisis on pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon, saying they intentionally held up the elections with new demands. Moussa also warned that an Arab leadership summit scheduled for March 28 in Damascus might be put off if the Lebanese crisis remained unresolved. Earlier this month, Arab foreign ministers - including Moallem - agreed unanimously to the so-called Arab plan, which backs Lebanese Army Gen. Michel Suleiman as the politically divided country's next president. It also calls on Lebanon to form a national unity government and adopt a new election law. Moussa said Sunday that the Arab plan was the "only solution on the table now," and that failing to implement it would put Lebanon in jeopardy. At the close of the foreign ministers' meeting, participants issued a joint statement calling on all Arab countries to endorse the plan "in letter and spirit" and to continue efforts to implement it, according to a copy of the statement obtained by the AP.