Talks between feuding Lebanese factions founder

Hizbullah sticks to its refusal to discuss any possibility that it will give up its weapons.

qatar  lebanon conf 224 (photo credit: AP)
qatar lebanon conf 224
(photo credit: AP)
Talks between feuding Lebanese factions foundered on the second day of Qatar-hosted meetings on Lebanon's 18-month political crisis, as Hizbullah stuck Sunday to its refusal to discuss any possibility it would give up its weapons. The US-backed Lebanese government, meanwhile, was determined to get assurances that the gunmen would not again turn their weapons on the Lebanese people, as they did in street violence last week. On a visit to Egypt, US President George W. Bush rallied world leaders Sunday to back Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government, and declared Hizbullah "the enemy of a free Lebanon and all nations." Qatar talks follow Lebanon's worst violence since the 1975-1990 civil war and mark the first time top leaders from the two sides have come face-to-face since November 2006. The crisis last week dissolved into violence between Hizbullah Shi'ite supporters and pro-government militiamen, as Hizbullah overran large swaths of Sunni areas in Muslim west Beirut neighborhoods. Clashes there and also in northern Lebanon and the central mountains left 67 people dead and wounded more than 200. After an Arab League-mediated deal and the government's reversal of anti-Hizbullah measures that had triggered the fighting, Lebanese factions flew Friday to Doha to negotiate on a national unity government and see if they can agree to elect a compromise presidential candidate. Lebanon has had no president since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud's term ended in November. Hizbullah's chief negotiator, Mohammed Raad, on Sunday accused the government of trying to "blackmail" the opposition by raising the subject of Hizbullah's weapons, which were not supposed to be on the table in Doha. An official from the government team told The Associated Press that almost no progress had been made and that the talks were "still at the beginning." He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to media. However, there were dissonant voices on the government side. Amin Gemayel, from the anti-Syrian coalition and a harsh Hizbullah critic, said the militants should not be rewarded for the street fighting but that "Hizbullah must pay for this negative adventure." Gemayel and other bitter Hizbullah opponents, such as Christian pro-government leader Samir Geagea, have been clamoring that Hizbullah's weapons be taken away. But Marwan Hamadeh, communications minister, said that while "discussing Hizbullah weapons is a must" in Doha, the government side would not "deprive" the militants of their arsenal. Minister of transportation, Mohammad al-Safadi, said the government wants "certain guarantees that Hizbullah will not use its weapons again" on the Lebanese. Washington and Saniora's faction have accused Iran and Syria of seeking to undermine the Lebanese government and Middle East stability, while Hizbullah accuses the prime minister and his allies in the anti-Syrian coalition of being America's servants. President Bush asked the world to help the government in Lebanon at a time of crisis and challenge from Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbullah, saying in remarks prepared for a speech before the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheik resort, that the world "must stand with the people of Lebanon in their struggle to build a sovereign and independent democracy." "This means opposing Hizbullah terrorists, funded by Iran, who recently revealed their true intentions by taking up arms against the Lebanese people," Bush said. Saniora, who heads the government delegation in Qatar, was to meet Bush Sunday in Egypt but the meeting was canceled. Doha talks are trying to reconcile government and opposition views on power sharing in a future Cabinet. A separate committee from the two sides is working on fine-tuning the text of a new Lebanese election law, while Arab mediators are shuttling between the representatives. The sides are expected to sit down together in full numbers only when a final agreement is struck.