Top leaders from Lebanon’s parliament majority and the opposition met for the first time in three months Thursday as part of efforts by the head of the Arab League to end Lebanon’s 15-month-old political crisis. Majority leader Saad Hariri and opposition leader Michel Aoun met Thursday at the parliament building in downtown Beirut. They were joined by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.  Hariri and Aoun held several meetings last year, including one in Paris in October. The opposition recently named Aoun as its representative in any meetings with the majority – a move that was rejected by the anti-syrian group for weeks.

The two leaders met in Parliament Thursday afternoon in the presence of Phalange Party president Amine Gemayel and Moussa himself. "I am optimistic. Holding the meeting is a success. There is still room for agreement, but there are some issues that need to be discussed extensively," Moussa said after the meeting which lasted for almost three hours. "We will meet again when I return from Damascus," he added.  Moussa is expected in Damascus on Friday.  The Arab chief league refused to discuss the details of the meeting, saying "the crisis will not be solved on newspaper pages," adding: "I will not speak in detail now. The crisis is very complicated and requires more discussions."

Asked about differences over interpreting the second item of the Arab initiative, Moussa said "the second item, relating to the formation of a unity government, is clear. It denies the opposition veto power, while denying the ruling coalition absolute majority in the Cabinet."  Asked about his view on internationalizing the Lebanese crisis, Moussa said he preferred "solving the Lebanese crisis on the Arab level."

The three-point Arab plan adopted by Arab foreign ministers during a meeting in Cairo earlier this month calls for the election of the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) General Michel Suleiman as president, the formation of a national unity government, and the drafting of a new electoral law for the 2009 parliamentary elections. The ruling coalition and the opposition are at odds over the interpretation of the Arab plan, namely the item on the formation of a unity government. The plan said the government should be formed in such a way that prevents any party from imposing or blocking Cabinet decisions.

Moussa echoed a recent remark made Wednesday by Suleiman, who said the situation in Lebanon was like a time bomb that needed to be defused.

"We all need to help each other in defusing the bomb," Moussa said.

Suleiman pledged on Thursday that the LAF would continue to pursue its duties in protecting the country and preserving its unity.

Meanwhile, the Central News Agency (CNA) said Thursday’s quartet meeting could possibly yield positive results.

"If the meeting is successful it could lead to the election of a president on Monday," an official close to the opposition told AFP on condition of anonymity, referring to a January 21 parliamentary session scheduled to try for the 13th time to elect a new president. The official said that if Moussa fails in his latest mission to broker an accord, Monday’s Parliament session to elect a president will probably also be cancelled.

Lebanon has been without a head of state since Emile Lahoud stepped down at midnight on November 23, 2007, with no successor elected because of a dispute between the Western-backed majority and the Hizbullah-led opposition.

Parliamentary majority sources said leaders of the ruling coalition made a "goodwill gesture" toward Moussa and told him they were ready to delegate someone to meet Aoun. The sources added that the coalition leaders wanted to prove to Moussa that meeting Aoun would not change anything unless the opposition decides to commit to implementing the Arab plan.

The CNA on Thursday quoted the parliamentary majority sources as saying that Syria was not willing to facilitate a solution in Lebanon in the meantime and "prefers to preserve the Lebanese card in order to use it in a later stage in the face of possible mounting pressure on Damascus."

Earlier on Thursday, Moussa held a series of meetings with leaders from the country’s feuding camps. In addition to holding separate meetings with Aoun and Hariri, Moussa met with Speaker Nabih Berri, and Defense Minister Elias Murr. 

Echoing the March 14 stance, Gemayel accused the Syrian-backed opposition of obstructing all solutions and delaying the election of a new head of state in Lebanon.

The former president spoke after a solidarity visit Thursday to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, who had a day earlier been criticized by key opposition member and former Minister Suleiman Franjieh.

"We are concerned about seeing the Lebanese state function properly. The opposition wants presidential vacuum to persist, but yet it claims [it is] supporting Suleiman for presidency," Gemayel said.

Opposition forces accused the ruling coalition Thursday of rejecting true partnership with them upon the request of US President George W. Bush.

"The opposition wants a settlement that yields a new president and a national unity government that supports the resistance and maintains brotherly ties with Syria," said a statement issued following a meeting of representatives of the opposition parties.

The opposition reiterated its support for the Arab initiative to solve the political deadlock plaguing Lebanon.

It also condemned recent calls to internationalize the Lebanese crisis and accused the ruling coalition of using foreign support to maintain its monopoly of power in Lebanon.

"The government coalition wants to destabilize the country in order to serve the plans of the US administration, but we will not surrender to any threats and we will confront any policy that conflicts with the interests of the Lebanese people," the statement added.

The Maronite patriarch said earlier this week that taking the Lebanese crisis to the United Nations might be Lebanon’s last resort in case Arab mediation efforts fail. Some parliamentary majority leaders also signaled at requesting the help of the international community to elect a new president in Lebanon. – With AFP

Syria to play constructive role – FM

BERLIN: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Thursday that Damascus would play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process and Lebanon, as Germany held out the prospect of stronger European ties.

Moallem, currently in a visit to Germany, said Syria would support ongoing efforts by the Arab League to break Beirut’s presidential deadlock.

Moallem met his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Thursday in Berlin.

Lebanon has been without a head of state since Emile Lahoud stepped down last November 23 with no elected successor because of a dispute between the ruling coalition and the opposition. – AFP

March 14 condemns attack on sfeir

BEIRUT: Christian leaders of the March 14 coalition said Thursday the Syrian campaign against Lebanon has reached its peak by targeting Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir.

"The attack against Bkirki targets the active role of Christians in Lebanon. This role was initially targeted by obstructing the election of a new president and by targeting the army and its Maronite commander," former MP Fares Soueid, who read the final statement said. Former minister Suleiman Franjieh had accused Sfeir of being a tool in the hand of foreign powers on Wednesday.

In related developments, Sfeir on Thursday apologized to Lebanese planning to visit him to express solidarity, saying he wanted to "devote the next three days for prayers." A delegation of March 14 Christians headed by Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea visited Sfeir Thursday evening. – The Daily Star

For the past two days, Moussa has been meeting Lebanese officials to try to find a breakthrough for the crisis. "The horizons are opening up," Moussa told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and shortly before heading to parliament to attend the Hariri-Aoun meeting. "We are doing all we can to reach a solution."

During four days of talks in Beirut last week, Moussa failed to get the two sides to agree on a plan adopted by Arab foreign ministers. which calls for the election of army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, as president, the formation of a national unity government and the adoption of a new election law.