March 22, 2006

Lebanese leaders fail again to agree on Lahoud’s fate

By Alaa Shahine

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rival Lebanese leaders failed to agree
on the fate of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud on Wednesday,
highlighting the wide gaps among Syria's allies and foes trying
to end Lebanon's worst political crisis in 16 years.

Political sources close to the "national dialogue" meeting
in Beirut had said the talks' third round were not likely to
yield breakthroughs on Lahoud's fate and disarming the
anti-Israeli Hizbollah guerrillas.

"We all know that there is a crisis in the country and we
are all determined to end it," anti-Syrian parliament majority
leader Saad al-Hariri told reporters.

"I am optimistic about the issue of the presidency and God
willing we will find a new president for our beloved country

Wednesday's session did not tackle Hizbollah's arms.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said the talks will resume
on March 27, a day before an Arab summit in Sudan where
politicians say Lebanon is expected to feature prominently
through efforts by heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Egypt to ease
tensions between Beirut and Damascus.

Syria, the dominant force in Lebanon until the withdrawal
of its troops last year, still wields considerable influence in
its smaller neighbor and backs both Lahoud and Hizbollah.

The consent of Damascus, therefore, is seen essential for
the removal of Lahoud, who many Lebanese see as the last
vestige of Syrian tutelage over their country. He has vowed not
to quit.


Berri said discussions "were more frank than at any other
time before ... We found that the issue needs more discussion
and consultations."

"All of our decisions must end in consensus, no one can
force his opinion on the others," he said.

One senior politician told Reuters before the session that
gaps among the participants were widening. "There are no quick
fixes and the dialogue looks set to linger on without results."

Lebanese politicians, Muslim and Christian, pro- and
anti-Syrian, first met at the "national dialogue" talks in
early March to find a way out of the country's worst crisis
since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The talks resumed a day after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi
Annan said he would begin talks with Beirut on creating a
special court to try suspects in the 2005 murder of former
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Hariri's death sparked mass protests in Beirut that forced
Syria to end its 29-military presence in Lebanon and ushered an
anti-Syrian majority into parliament.