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December 14, 2006


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Arab League chief says more work needed for Lebanon deal
by Kerry Sheridan

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Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa(L) meets with Lebanese MP Saad Hariri in Beirut.

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa said that more work was needed to settle a protracted political crisis between the Lebanese government and the Syrian-backed opposition.

Mussa wrapped up a three-day mediation mission without a deal, hailing progress but urging further talks between the feuding parties over the formation of a national unity government.

The opposition spearheaded by the Tehran- and Damascus-backed Hezbollah has mobilized thousands of protesters in central Beirut since December 1 and threatened to escalate their protests if their demands are not met.

"There was progress, and there is good ground for understanding, but matters demand more efforts," Mussa told reporters in the Lebanese capital.

Mussa said the Western-backed government and opposition leaders had agreed to form a new commission to discuss a controversial international tribunal into the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, widely blamed on Syria.

A UN-proposed Hariri court "is at the top of the agenda because it is an important question linked to finding justice," Mussa said.

To that end, he said parties agreed on forming "a six-member committee, including two judges and four political representatives, to examine the tribunal convention."

A UN inquiry has implicated some top Syrian figures and their Lebanese allies in the 2005 bomb blast that killed Hariri and 22 others. Syria has denied involvement.

Mussa also sketched the broad outline of what a potential new unity government would look like, and said it was among matters up for further discussion.

"The question of forming a national unity government will be examined in-depth," he said, according to a formula of 19 ministers from the anti-Syrian parliament majority, 10 ministers from the opposition and one neutral minister.

The current 24-member cabinet was deserted by six pro-Syrian ministers who handed in their resignations last month, and has yet to name a new industry minister after Pierre Gemayel was assassinated on November 21.

Such a 30-member structure would give neither the blocking minority demanded by the opposition nor the two-thirds majority currently held by anti-Syrian politicians.

A government source said the Arab League chief planned to return early next week for more talks.

"Everyone has a real desire to cooperate and move forward in the spirit of 'neither victor nor vanquished' which has always characterized the Lebanese political system in which numerous communities co-exist," Mussa said.

The anti-Syrian majority has accused the opposition of seeking to block an international tribunal into the Hariri slaying and aiming to mount a coup d'etat.

The opposition accuses the government of riding roughshod over the power-sharing arrangements in force since the 1975-90 civil war and wants a new government that gives it a greater say and the ability to block cabinet moves.

"This is a very sensitive situation that needs careful diplomacy," Mussa said.

"I hope there will be no escalation."

Amid continued US accusations that Syria is stirring turmoil in neighboring Lebanon, US Senator Bill Nelson told reporters he and Syrian President Bashar Assad had sparred over the Hariri court and Siniora's government during talks on Wednesday.

"Assad said he did not support the Siniora government and on that we had a very sharp exchange of words and a sharp disagreement," said Nelson, a Florida Democrat on the foreign relations committee.

"We support the (Lebanese) prime minister's efforts to establish a tribunal for a horrific crime of assassination," Nelson said.

Assad "disagreed with the opinion that I expressed," Nelson said.

This week the rump cabinet left after six pro-Syrian ministers resigned last month sent to parliament its approval of the UN-endorsed draft on creating the court, which must now be voted on by parliament.

However, pro-Syrian parliament speaker Nabih Berri has refused to convene any parliamentary session until the current deadlock is resolved, citing the danger of further opposition resignations which could worsen the crisis.

After talks with Mussa, Siniora, who has been holed up in his offices since the start of the month, traveled to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin, a traditional ally of Syria.

Siniora's trip to Russia, Syria's main arms supplier, was to be followed in the coming days by a visit from Assad. -AFP

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