BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – An alliance between the leader of the pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas and a prominent Christian leader who fought Syrian troops appears to have jolted Lebanon’s political landscape, raising hopes it might ease sectarian tensions in a country veering toward a renewed conflict.
The landmark meeting took place Monday between Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, a Shiite Muslim cleric and one of Syria’s close allies, and Michel Aoun, a Maronite Catholic who leads a parliamentary bloc and who as army commander in the late 1980s fought Syrian troops.
“The Aoun-Nasrallah meeting is a … plan for a new Lebanon, around which all Lebanese forces could rally,” pro-Syrian former Environment Minister Wiam Wahhab told The Associated Press.
As-Safir newspaper said in a headline Tuesday, “The Aoun-Nasrallah meeting: A political coup.” Its publisher, Talal Salman, said he hoped the agreement would help eliminate the “sectarian climate” in the country, and also perhaps bridge gaps between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian groups.
Reaction from anti-Syrian politicians, however, ranged from cautious welcome to silence or subtle criticism. “Any meeting between leaders from different sects is positive. It is useful,” said Samir Franjieh, an anti-Syrian Christian lawmaker.
He told The Associated Press that the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement will lead to “a realignment of political forces” in Lebanon in the face of the anti-Syrian coalition, and that could further polarize the country between anti- and pro-Syrian camps.
The alliance also confirms Aoun’s break with the anti-Syrian coalition.
Both Aoun and Nasrallah insist their agreement is not directed against anti-Syrian groups. But it was clear that one of the reasons behind their political alliance is an upcoming parliamentary seat election in central Lebanon that is shaping up as a battle between pro- and anti-Syrian parties.
The men’s meeting, held in a Maronite church south of Beirut, came a day after thousands of rampaging Muslim demonstrators set fire to the building housing Denmark’s diplomatic mission in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut in the most violent of escalating worldwide rage over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Sunday’s riots threatened to rekindle sectarian tensions in this mixed Muslim-Christian nation, which is struggling to recover from the devastating 1975-90 civil war. Bearded Muslim extremists took over the streets in the Christian Ashrafieh neighborhood where the Danish mission is located, wreaking havoc on property for about three hours.
At least one person died, 30 were injured, half of them security officials, and about 416 people were detained in the violence. The interior minister submitted his resignation. Acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat said Tuesday the detainees included 138 Syrians and 47 Palestinians.
Lebanon has been wracked by struggles among its fiercely competitive political parties, and by renewed sectarian fears, since the assassination a year ago of former leader Rafik Hariri.
Anti-Syrian groups blame Syria for his death, and a U.N. investigation into the assassination has implicated Syrian officials and their allies in the Lebanese security services. Syria denies involvement.
The pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat also called the Aoun-Nasrallah meeting “a coup,” saying the encounter between the most powerful leader within the Shiite community and the most powerful leader in the Christian heartland “will leave its impact on balances of power that have emerged since Hariri’s assassination.”
The meeting capped weeks of negotiations with an agreement on a 10-point “paper of understanding.” It calls for ways to end rampant corruption and draft a new election law, and also envisages ways of confronting such divisive issues as the demarcation of borders and establishing diplomatic relations with Syria and disarming Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian factions.
Aoun, a former army commander who lost of a “war of liberation” against the Syrian army and was driven into exile in 1991, returned from France in May after the Syrian troops made a hasty withdrawal from Lebanon. The Syrians withdrew under international pressure after dominating Lebanon’s political life for nearly three decades.