Lebanon leaders fail to bridge gaps at crisis talks
By Nadim Ladki
Friday, March 3, 2006; 3:09 PM
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rival Lebanese leaders failed on Friday to bridge sharp differences over the fate of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and the disarming of Hizbollah guerrillas at a second day of talks to end Lebanon's political crisis.
Political sources said heated debate raged between Muslim and Christian leaders, both pro- and anti-Syrian, at a "national dialogue conference" at parliament in the largest such gathering since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
"Dialogue was comprehensive..., responsible, serious and extremely frank," Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is convening the meeting, said after nearly six hours of talks.
"These issues take time because these thorough discussions are taking place for the first time. I believe the results, God willing, will be good."
The conference, which started on Thursday and reconvenes on Saturday, could last for up to a week.
After quickly agreeing on Thursday on backing a U.N. inquiry into the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri 13 months ago and an international trial for any suspects, the talks moved to more divisive issues, namely the fate of Lahoud who is opposed by the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority.
The sources said anti-Syrian leaders -- Hariri's son Saad, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Christian ex-warlord Samir Geagea -- are leading calls for ousting Lahoud. Jumblatt left for the United States, but was represented by an aide.
Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun and pro-Syrian Hizbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah were against forcing the president out and highlighted the need for agreement on a successor and his political program in case Lahoud chooses to resign voluntarily.
The talks also focused on a U.N. resolution demanding Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah and Palestinian fighters disarm.
The leaders were shown maps said to prove that Shebaa Farms, an area of rugged hills at the foot of the Golan Heights, belonged to Lebanon. Israel, which still holds the area, and the United Nations say the farms are Syrian.
Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, says it is a resistance force, not a militia, seeking to win back Shebaa Farms and defend Lebanon from Israel. Anti-Syrian leaders want Shebaa returned by diplomacy and say it is time Hizbollah disarmed.
The sources said some of the most heated debate was between Nasrallah and Geagea over disarming the group.
Hariri's assassination in a 1-tonne truck bomb sparked massive street protests that forced Syria to withdraw its forces from its smaller neighbor after 29 years and an anti-Syrian coalition to sweep to victory in elections last year.
Those changes were hailed at the time as heralding the end of Syrian tutelage, but Damascus' local allies remain, as do political splits that have often prevented the government from meeting or taking decisions over the past year and have blocked much-need economic reforms.
Syria backs Lahoud, who has resisted growing calls to step down. Lebanon's president is always a Maronite Christian, a sect that had always formed the backbone of opposition to Syria.
Lebanese security forces have deployed heavily around the parliament building in central Beirut, blocking traffic and pedestrians. Shops and offices downtown were also shut, bringing life in the usually busy area to a halt.
(Additional reporting by Leila Bassam)