BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – Rival Lebanese factions reached a deal Wednesday to resolve an 18-month political crisis that pitted Hezbollah against the Western-backed government and pushed the country to the brink of a new civil war.
The agreement was a major triumph for Iranian- and Syrian-supported Hezbollah, giving the armed Shiite guerrilla group increased political power and further eroding the government’s frail command of the religious- and political-divided country.
“There are no losers,” said Lebanese Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, downplaying the concessions his side made to Hezbollah. “Lebanon is the winner.”
The deal comes on the heels of Lebanon’s worst internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war. At least 67 people were killed when clashes broke out earlier this month between pro-government groups and the opposition in the streets of Muslim west Beirut, the central mountains and the north.
As the country came close to a new all-out war, Arab League mediators intervened and got the sides to agree to hold last-ditch negotiations in the Persian Gulf country of Qatar to resolve the crisis.
Hezbollah came into the talks with the upper hand after armed militiamen easily overran large swaths of Muslim west Beirut, routing their Sunni pro-government opponents from some of their strongholds in the recent violence. The clashes eventually died down, but Hezbollah had shown it could force the government to cave in.
As part of the agreement, reached after five days of intense talks, Hezbollah and its political allies would receive veto power in the country’s new national unity government, Hamadeh told The Associated Press from Qatar. Obtaining veto power was the key Hezbollah demand that triggered the 1 1/2-year-long crisis.
Along with veto-power on government policies, the opposition also will get 11 Cabinet seats under the deal. The parties aligned with Prime Minister Fuad Saniora will get 16 seats. The remaining seats will be distributed by the incoming president, Hamadeh said. Previously, the opposition had six Cabinet seats.
He said the two sides reached the breakthrough at dawn Wednesday. Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani later announced the deal at a ceremony in Doha and said it would be “carried out immediately.”
A few bursts of celebratory gunfire broke out in Beirut’s after the announcement. Lebanese television stations showed Lebanese politicians and their Arab hosts congratulating and hugging one another.
Under the deal, the two sides also agreed on an electoral law, which divides the Mediterranean Sea country into smaller-sized political districts.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri also will call parliament to session to elect army chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, as the country new president in the next 24 hours, the Qatari prime minister said.
Both sides picked Suleiman to be Lebanon’s next president after Emile Lahoud stepped down in November. But disagreements over other contentious issues — including the formation of the unity government and drafting electoral law — stalled his election.
Speaking in Doha at the ceremony, Berri said opposition supporters would also dismantle their “tent city” protest camp. The opposition has been camped out for more than a year in downtown Beirut across from the prime minister’s office.
Berri said this would be a “gift” from the opposition, hailing the Doha agreement.
Saniora, also addressing the ceremony, called on the Lebanese to reject violence and asked Arab states to help support Lebanon’s army, which kept a neutral role during the latest clashes.
“We must … pledge never to resort to arms to resolve our political differences,” Saniora said. “We should accept each other and hold dialogue to solve the problems. We want to live together and we will continue that. We have no other choice.”
The Doha-based negotiations came after the Arab League mediated a deal to end the week of deadly violence that paralyzed parts of the country. The Qatar negotiations hit snags from the very start, with neither side willing to give concessions.
The agreement was reached after host Qatar stepped up the pressure Tuesday with Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani personally intervening.
The 18-month political deadlock started when opposition lawmakers resigned from the U.S.-backed government in November 2006 to protest a Cabinet refusal to grant them enough seats to ensure veto power over policy decisions.