- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

BEIRUT — A deal to end the standoff between Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government and Hezbollah, the nation’s worst political crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war, is expected to be finalized within the next few days, key political figures say.

Optimism about an agreement follows a meeting between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Saudi King Abdullah on Saturday, when Mr. Ahmadinejad made his first official visit to the Saudi capital.

“The chances of success this time are greater than at any previous time,” opposition leader Nabih Berri told the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

Mr. Berri, who is parliament speaker and head of the Shi’ite Muslim political party Amal, added that a settlement “might appear within 48 hours.”

His optimism was echoed by Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian and a strong critic of the opposition, who told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. Sunday that “indeed an effective solution” has been found to the crisis.

The opposition, which includes Hezbollah and Amal, has been locked in a power struggle for months with the anti-Syrian governing coalition.

So far Mr. Berri has not elaborated on the details of an agreement, which would end an impasse over plans for an international tribunal to try suspects in the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The assassination created international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

Leaders from both sides have provided conflicting information about the details of the agreement.

Mr. Geagea said the solution is based on the formation of a joint committee that would oversee changes to the international tribunal and the creation of a national unity government that would expand the Cabinet, giving the governing majority 19 seats.

The opposition, he said, would be allocated 10 seats and another seat would be allocated to a figure not affiliated with either side.

Hezbollah officials told the press that the deal being negotiated by Iran and Saudi Arabia would provide the opposition with 11 seats in the new Cabinet, giving it veto power.

Opposition leaders threatened as recently as yesterday to escalate their campaign to oust the government if the ruling majority does not respond positively to the proposed settlement.

Pro-Hezbollah demonstrators have held a sit-in in front of the government offices downtown for more than three months in an attempt to topple the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

They have been demanding a larger say in the government, including veto power in the Cabinet. They have also called for early parliamentary elections.

The ruling coalition has accused Hezbollah of trying to gain veto power to block the international tribunal in order to protect Syria, which denies any involvement in Mr. Hariri’s killing.

Fatal street clashes between pro-government Sunnis and the mainly Shi’ite opposition have stoked fears that the country could see another sectarian civil war.

Christian political factions are divided between the two camps.

Iran supports Hezbollah, while Saudi Arabia has close ties with Sunni parliament member Saad Hariri, a leader in the ruling coalition.

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