BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Lebanon’s rival leaders sat down together in an unprecedented political dialogue Thursday aimed at resolving the country’s deep divisions since the end of Syrian domination, amid warnings that failure could worsen the slide toward instability.
Hours before the gathering in Beirut, a small bomb exploded in a courthouse before dawn in the Christian port of Jounieh, outside the capital, Beirut. Windows were broken but there were no injuries, since the building was empty at the time.
It was the latest in a chain of mysterious bombings in Lebanon that began in early 2005. Blasts have killed 32 people, including former prime minister Rafik Hariri in a Feb. 14, 2003 attack and three other anti-Syrian figures.
Other explosions have been in mainly Christian districts, often causing damage and fear but no casualties. The attacks have heightened concerns over the sharp splits in Lebanon in the wake of Syria’s withdrawal from the country last year, the country’s worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Thursday’s gathering was the first of its kind since the end of Syria’s control, which lasted nearly 30 years. Rival political leaders, Muslim and Christian, pro- and anti-Syrian, sat down together in the downtown Beirut parliament building in hopes of resolving their differences. The meeting could last up to 10 days, with a nearby hotel booked for the conferees. But it will be an uphill struggle to reach an agreement, since they are tackling some of he issues at the heart of the divisions, demands for the ousting of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and the disarming of the militant Hezbollah group, as well as defining Lebanese-Syrian relations.
“We are doomed to success,” warned Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who called the meeting in the legislature. “Failure is forbidden because its consequences are grave,” he told As-Safir newspaper Thursday. The meeting was closed and journalists were not allowed into the building. A spokesman for Berri, Mohammed Ballout, told reporters gathered near the legislature that the meeting began.
All participants, a total of about 35, stood up as the national anthem played. Then Berri had opening remarks before the conferees began talks behind closed doors. Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who controls the largest parliamentary bloc, Walid Jumblatt, the Druse political leader, Shiite Muslim Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Michel Aoun, a Christian who leads the parliamentary opposition, and Christian leader Samir Geagea were among the politicians who showed up for the talks. Nasrallah and Geagea are meeting for the first time.
The only major politican not invited was Lahoud, though Nasrallah, Aoun and others at the conference either back the president or do not support ousting him. Lahoud has resisted calls to step down by the anti-Syrian bloc, led by Hariri, the son of the slain former prime minister, and Jumblatt.
Other factions involved ranged from right-wing Christians like Geagea to militant Shiites like Hezbollah. The meeting bringing together in person such an array of political leaders was unprecendented since the civil war, although most factions have representation in Parliament and Cabinet and have regularly held bilateral meetings.
Newspapers likened it to the 1989 meeting in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that produced an accord that ended the civil war. Berri, a pro-Syrian politician, has set three main topics: pressing to uncover the culprits who killed Hariri; a U.N. resolution calling for disarmament of all militias; and Lebanese-Syrian relations, now are at their lowest point.
Other issues, such as the call for Lahoud’s resignation, also could be discussed, he said. All the topics are deeply divisive. Hezbollah, the main focus of the U.N. resolution, has rejected local and international calls to disarm.
The anti-Syrian bloc accuses Damascus in the Hariri slaying and want to push ahead a U.N. investigation into the assassination, which has already implicated Syrian officials. Syria’s allies say the investigation is political and aimed at railroading Damascus and undermining Syrian President Bashar Assad. The two sides also differ over an international tribunal to try the suspects.
The anti-Syrians are also pressing for Lahoud to resign, though they do not have the two-thirds votes in the legislature to oust him. The president is backed by Hezbollah and Amal, another pro-Syrian Shiite faction headed by Speaker Berri.
The meeting’s opening was delayed by about an hour because of differences over representation, and even seating, on the table.
A small bloc of pro-Syrian factions representing the Lebanon chapter of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and a leftist independent wanted a seat on the table, according to local LBC TV. But the move was opposed by the anti-Syrian coalition, which commands a slight majority in the legislature. Both sides scrambled in side meetings to deal with this problem.
Ballout would not say how the matter was resolved, but TV stations reported the pro-Syrian faction was left out. While all political factions agreed on the conference’s significance, there was skepticism that politicians who have traded sharp accusations in recent weeks and staged competing street protests would be able to agree. Media reports have speculated that the success of the dialogue conference hinged on an Arab initiative to defuse tensions between Lebanon and Syria. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Arab League have so far sought but failed to mend relations between the two.
Berri warned against failure. “Success is in the interest of all. Failure means that may God have mercy on the country and that all will drown without exceptions. No one will show mercy on us,” Berri told As-Safir.
Addressing his words to pro- and anti-Syrian groups and independent politicians, Berri said in As-Safir: “There is no room for outbiddings at the dialogue table … It is not permissible for dialogue to fail. It must succeed and let’s put absurdities and outbiddings aside.”