Thursday, March 01, 2007

Jumblatt trumpets US support for 'coexistence, free economy'

BEIRUT: Speaking from Washington on Wednesday, Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt said that the United States’ commitment to the Lebanese "model" remains unchanged, as various other Lebanese leaders expressed hope for a resolution early next month to the current political crisis.

In an interview with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, the head of the Progressive Socialist Party said that he had "emphasized to the US the importance of maintaining Lebanon as a model for coexistence, a model of free economy, a model of freedoms in the Arab East, in the face of a desire by the Islamic Republic [of Iran] and Syria to break this model."

Jumblatt added that President Emile Lahoud was "an employee" of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In response to statements by Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad the previous day that an ordinary Parliament session would not convene as long as there is no unity government, Jumblatt said that "this verifies there is a plot aimed at toppling Lebanese legitimacy and imposing a status quo government."

In a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Wednesday, Jumblatt said he had emphasized the need to provide the Lebanese Army with additional resources.

Jumblatt also met late Wednesday with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Also on Wednesday, MP Saad Hariri met the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, in Brussels. In a joint press conference, Hariri expressed confidence that Saudi and Iranian contacts "will bear fruit."

Hariri said the Lebanese parliamentary majority had always wanted to establish diplomatic relations with Syria, but that Damascus had refused.

"There is a regime that is trying to threaten stability in Lebanon," said the legislator. "This is not acceptable and we will not allow it."

Asked to comment on reports that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri would not convene an ordinary session in mid-March, Hariri said: "Now you see why we do not want to give [the opposition] the blocking third, this is my answer."

Solana said that while interference in Lebanese affairs exists, he hopes that future involvement by other countries "will be more positive" and will aim at solving the crisis.

In Lebanon, leaders on both sides of the political divide expressed hope that the current crisis will be resolved before Parliament’s ordinary session, due to convene on the first Tuesday after March 15.

March 14 Forces MP Butros Harb, speaking to TeleLiban on Wednesday, said that any discussion of the legitimacy of the government has to take place in Parliament, since the current Parliament had given the present government a vote of confidence.

"At that time, all issues may be discussed," Harb said. "I hope the political crisis is resolved by then, but if it is not we do not want to add complications that only exacerbate the crisis. It is not within the purview of the president or the speaker to determine the condition of the government. The only body with the authority to do that is Parliament."

The Amal Movement’s Development and Liberation Bloc MP Michel Moussa, speaking on Voice of Lebanon radio Wednesday, also expressed "great hope" for a breakthrough before the 19th Arab League summit is convened in late March.

"The tempo of activity toward finding a solution has decreased but the doors to a solution are still open," Moussa said. "There are internal contacts even if they are only through a few channels, but there are also Arab contacts being conducted by Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa and contacts between Saudi Arabia and Iran."

Moussa said he hoped these contacts "will reach a positive conclusion," adding that it would be preferable for the Lebanese to go to the summit in agreement – or at least with "a bare minimum" of agreement.

A well-informed ministerial source told the Central News Agency that Arab efforts aimed at resolving the Lebanese crisis are currently focusing on repairing Saudi-Syrian relations.

The source said that Syria’s final position on the international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 killing of former Premier Rafik Hariri "will become clearer after the end of the Arab summit," when Assad is expected to discuss the issue with King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia.

March 14 Forces MP Samir Franjieh, speaking to the Central News Agency Wednesday, said a level-headed solution to the Lebanese crisis requires both Amal and Hizbullah pursuing a policy that "de-links" the Lebanese crisis from regional struggles.

"Such a policy is key to solving the Lebanese crisis. As such a path has not been chosen until now, it is certain that there is a serious likelihood of the situation in Lebanon exploding to serve the interests of the Syrian-Iranian axis," Franjieh said.

Information Minister Ghazi Aridi, in an interview with Algerian television Wednesday, said reports in the media on the progress of Saudi-Iranian contacts "are enough to indicate who is hindering this initiative."

"Who changed their position? Who rejected the initiative of the secretary general?" Aridi asked.