Saturday, May 17, 2008

BEIRUT (AP) — Leaders of Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition went to Qatar yesterday for the highest-level talks since the country’s political crisis began 18 months ago.

The talks on forming a national unity government and electing a president were agreed under a deal between feuding factions to end the worst violence since the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. The two sides will begin negotiating today.

A political standoff has paralyzed the country and left it without a president since Emile Lahoud’s term ended last November.

A week ago, the standoff dissolved into violence when the government passed measures to rein in Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Hezbollah fighters overran neighborhoods of west Beirut and clashes left 66 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

“We are going to Doha … to return, God willing, with an agreement that allows us as Lebanese to look forward, while benefiting from the lessons and bitter experiences of the past,” state media quoted Prime Minister Fouad Siniora as saying before leaving Beirut for the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, which is hosting the talks.

The government delegation is headed by Mr. Siniora, who left with parliament majority leader Saad Hariri on Mr. Hariri’s private plane separately from the other leaders, Lebanese TV reported.

According to a Reuters news agency report, an influential member of the ruling coalition said both sides must be flexible to avoid further bloodshed.

“Each one of us and them must offer concessions to bury strife,” Walid Jumblatt said before flying to Doha. “We are going to the dialogue with a great political wound.”

Under a deal brokered by Arab League mediators, the talks in Doha would lead to the election of compromise candidate Michel Suleiman, the army chief, as Lebanese president.

They also will focus on the formation of a national unity government and a new election law, along with ways to guarantee the “security of the state and the citizens” — a reference to military activities of Hezbollah and other armed groups.

The opposition will be represented by pro-Syrian parliament speaker Nabih Berri and three Hezbollah lawmakers.

Last week’s violence eventually forced the government to cave in and revoke the measures against Hezbollah. It was a major victory for the militant group and a sign that Hezbollah had gained the upper hand in the power struggle with the government.

The United States has accused Iran and Syria of seeking to undermine Mr. Siniora’s government and regional stability, while Hezbollah accuses the prime minister and his allies in the anti-Syrian coalition of toeing the pro-American line.

President Bush and Saudi King Abdullah shared their concerns about the Lebanon violence during a meeting yesterday in Riyadh, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters.

The two were concerned the Lebanon events would “embolden Iran,” Mr. Hadley said.

Associated Press writer Jennifer Loven contributed to this report from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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