- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

BEIRUT (AP) — Feuding Lebanese factions holding top-level crisis talks in Qatar hit new snags yesterday, with the U.S.-backed government side and the Hezbollah-led opposition disagreeing on how to go forward.

The Hezbollah faction issued a statement saying it wants both key issues — a national unity government and a new election law — resolved before returning to Beirut, where the election of Lebanon’s next president would follow in parliament.

The statement indicates that Arab mediators, perhaps impatient at the talks’ slow progress, might have tried to get the sides to at least agree to elect compromise candidate Gen. Michel Suleiman as president, while postponing agreement on other points.

It was the strongest evidence yet of how much the talks have foundered.

Earlier yesterday, the negotiations stumbled on the issue of the election law. The legislation is significant because it translates how the sides will distribute power in Beirut. Shi’ite opposition lawmaker Hassan Yacoub told private LBC Television from Doha, Qatar, that the “problem is in … dividing Beirut.”

The Qatar talks follow an Arab-mediated deal that got the Lebanese sides to end a week of the country’s worst violence since the 1975-90 civil war and agree to hold negotiations on overcoming the country’s 18-month political crisis.

The violence erupted May 7, when Shi’ite Hezbollah gunmen and their allies overran much of West Beirut in protest of anti-Hezbollah government measures, routing Sunni groups from some of their strongholds. Clashes there and in the central mountains and northern Lebanon left at least 67 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

The Doha talks mark the first time top leaders from the two sides have come face to face since November 2006.

Lebanese state-run National News Agency said a “declaration of intentions” was expected late yesterday — a statement detailing what the participants in Doha agree on so far. It added that Hezbollah’s weapons would be discussed later, back in Beirut, indicating that the government side shelved the issue for now.

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