- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun called for far-reaching reforms to his country’s political culture but stopped short of saying he would be a candidate for president.

“Democracy comes first,” said the retired army general, who was reached on his cell phone shortly after his triumphant weekend return to Beirut after 15 years of exile in France.

“Changes are important if Lebanon is to change for the better,” said the Maronite Christian, who was forced to leave in 1990 after opposing Syrian influence in his country. “The Lebanese must change their ways; they must move away from the bad old habits.”

Mr. Aoun — seen by some Lebanese as a renegade and by others as a savior — said he would focus his energy on building a “new Lebanon.”

“Lebanon’s archaic, feudal and religious fanaticism, as well as rampant corruption that in the past has destroyed the people, must be done away with,” he said.

Addressing reports that he intends to run for president, he said: “One must not aim for a specific post, or position. One must plan for a new society.”

Mr. Aoun, who many blame for some of the worst fighting and violence during the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon, said he held great love for the Lebanese people. “I felt very emotional upon my return.”

Supporters say as many as 400,000 people greeted Mr. Aoun’s return from exile Saturday in Freedom Square, where huge anti-Syrian demonstrations were held after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mr. Aoun had lobbied Washington from exile for support in pressing Syria to remove its forces from Lebanon. He played a primary role in persuading the Bush administration to pass the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act of 2003, which provided for economic sanctions on Damascus.

His actions brought accusations from the Lebanese pro-Syrian government that he was trying to create discord between the two countries and incite religious discord.

“I have harmed no one. I have good intentions,” Mr. Aoun said. He indicated he wished for peace with Syria.

“There is much Syria and Lebanon can profit from each other,” he said.

Mr. Aoun said now that Syria has quit Lebanon, his problems with Damascus are over. “I have already pardoned those who fought me,” he said.

Speaking of Lebanese political leaders who backed the Syrian troop presence in the country, Mr. Aoun said, “If they … want to work with us in rebuilding the country, I am ready to work with them. I have good intentions for Lebanon.

“Peace cannot be waged by one side alone,” he said. “War can be waged by one side, but not peace. I hope Syria opts for peace.”

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