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Lebanon talks hit snag over power-sharing plan

Talks to end Lebanon's political crisis suffered a setback on Monday after the Hezbollah-led opposition appeared to ignore proposals by Qatari mediators.
/ Source: Reuters

Talks to end Lebanon's political crisis suffered a setback on Monday after the Hezbollah-led opposition appeared to ignore proposals by Qatari mediators aimed at pulling the country back from the brink of civil war.

The Arab League intervened last week to end Lebanon's worst domestic fighting since the 1975-1990 civil war and pave the way for the Doha talks between the U.S.-backed ruling coalition and the opposition to end an 18-month-old crisis.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani made proposals on Sunday on power-sharing in a new government and the rivals had been expected to hammer out a compromise over a new election law on Monday.

Agreement on these points would pave the way for parliament to elect army commander General Michel Suleiman as president, a post that has been vacant since November.

But a statement issued by opposition leaders after a meeting on Monday was short on detail and restated existing demands, disappointing the ruling camp and casting a pall over talks.

Sheikh Hamad met ruling coalition leaders for 90 minutes but no breakthrough appeared to have been reached.

Ruling coalition sees deal-breakers
"Everyone feels that if the talks continue for longer that means we go into diversions ... and that there are those who don't want to reach a deal," Ahmed Fatfat, a member of the U.S.-backed ruling coalition, told LBC television.

"We hope there is a deal tonight, or tomorrow morning, as fast as possible. That is what we are seeking but we won't back down on the principles of this negotiation ... including the issue of weapons."

Shiite Muslim Hezbollah used its military muscle this month to thwart a government attempt to limit its power, briefly seizing parts of Beirut in fighting that killed 81 people.

The defeat of Sunni and Druze pro-government gunmen raised sectarian tension and brought the country to the brink of war.

The United States blames Syria and Iran, both of which back Hezbollah, for the group's offensive this month.

The ruling coalition has demanded clear guarantees that Hezbollah would not turn its guns on Lebanese rivals again. But the issue of Hezbollah's guns is not on the official agenda at Doha and the group has refused to discuss it.

"Hezbollah will not agree to... the inclusion of the resistance's weapons (on the agenda)," Hezbollah politician Mohammed Fneish told the National News Agency.

No timetable was set for the Qatar talks but, four days in, delegates said the clock was ticking. Sheikh Hamad was due in Saudi Arabia for a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council on Tuesday and set to begin a foreign visit on Wednesday.

'We are leaving tomorrow'
Eight Arab foreign ministers are in Doha but could not stay indefinitely while Lebanon's complex problems were resolved.

"I hope that we reach agreement because we all have other commitments... and we cannot abandon them and also not reach a solution here," said Arab League chief Amr Moussa. "In all cases, we are leaving tomorrow. Personally, I am leaving."

The ruling coalition saw the opposition's statement on Monday as evidence that they were not prepared to compromise.

The main sticking point appeared to be the composition of the government. Sheikh Hamad proposed a cabinet of 30 ministers in which the ruling coalition would have 13 seats, the opposition 10 and the new president would name seven ministers.

Opposition delegates say they will only accept a proposal that guarantees them 11 ministers — or veto power in cabinet.

If they fail to agree, delegates said the rivals might opt for a transitional government made up of technocrats or politicians belonging to neither of the feuding camps.

On the election law, the latest proposal would refer to parliament an existing plan for the 2009 elections that was drafted by a government-appointed committee of legal experts. The law combines direct voting with proportional representation.

Fneish said his camp rejected the "idea of electing a president first and shaping a national unity government without achieving the election law."

The ruling coalition's refusal to yield to the demand for an effective veto power in the cabinet triggered the resignation of all Shiite ministers in November 2006.

"What is happening is a result of the all the disputes that took place before. There is still mistrust among the parties," said Arab League official Hisham Yousef.