BEIRUT daily – star : President Emile Lahoud said Tuesday that he would step down as president in a matter of months and suggested the formation of a six-minister "national salvation government" to carry the country out of its prolonged political deadlock. Lahoud spoke after a lunch meeting with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir in Bkirki. In a meeting between the leaders described afterward by both as positive, talks centered on the narrowing window of opportunity for the country’s two main political camps to come together ahead of presidential elections scheduled for late September.

After Lahoud repeated to Sfeir the opposition’s proposal for a national unity government, the patriarch said he feared that an enlarged government would give way to more political infighting. Lahoud then suggested a six-minister "national salvation Cabinet" to comprise ministers representing the country’s six major sects. Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Sfeir, Lahoud said that time was short to reach a solution to the political crisis.

"The solution, as I have said before, and I am sure His Beatitude agrees, is for the Lebanese to sit together as soon as possible and for a national unity government to be established and for the [opposition] sit-in to end, in order to resolve all thorny issues, starting with the issue of the camp," he said, referring to the 10-day standoff between the army and Islamist militants in Nahr al-Bared. Lahoud said such steps were needed to ensure a "good summer season" and that presidential elections are held on time. 

"All this has to happen today before tomorrow, especially since we know what is being plotted [for the country] outside Lebanon, from settling Palestinians to other matters."

Lahoud had earlier tied the fighting in Nahr al-Bared to what he said was a US plot to arrange for the permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon.

Tuesday’s lunch was preceded by a half-hour private meeting between Lahoud and Sfeir.

During the meeting, Sfeir placed a call to Speaker Nabih Berri to discuss the current situation and the formation of a national unity government.

Sfeir also said that the suggestion for a national unity government had to be discussed with all parties concerned.

In comments made to Nahar Al-Shabab to be published Thursday, Parliamentary Majority leader MP Saad Hariri said that Lahoud’s idea of a six-minister government was an attempt to hamper the UN Security Council’s consideration of an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

"The timing raises suspicions and is not separate from the general mood concerning passing the tribunal," said Hariri. "Premier Fouad Siniora suggested a new government or an expanded government, but only after we agree on a political program."

Hariri said the "national salvation government" suggestion could be an attempt to circumvent presidential elections.

"We want a government that does not cancel presidential elections but one that holds elections within the constitutionally mandated time."

Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh told The Daily Star on Tuesday that Lahoud’s offer was a futile attempt "to fool people into thinking matters are moving forward" on the tribunal.

"We were the first to call for a national unity government, but one based on a specific program, first we have to agree on a program and on the four basic principles, the tribunal, Palestinian weapons outside the camp, demarcation of the border in Shebaa and diplomatic representation [with Syria]," he said.

Hamadeh said that the majority was prepared to sit and talk with Berri and with all members of the minority, but not with Lahoud. "Let [Lahoud] first meet his constitutional obligations to call for a parliamentary session and a by-election in Metn," Hamadeh said. The minister said that Lahoud’s visit to Sfeir was useless.