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US, France press Lebanon to fill vacant presidency - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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US envoy David Welch (L), the US assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs meets Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri (R) in Beirut 18 December 2007 (AFP)

US envoy David Welch (L), the US assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs meets Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri (R) in Beirut 18 December 2007 (AFP)

BEIRUT (AFP) – The United States and France pressed Lebanon’s divided parliament on Wednesday to elect a new head of state by the end of the week to fill a three-week void, after nine attempts have failed and plunged the country into political disarray.

US envoy David Welch met officials for a second straight day as French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that a parliamentary session called for Saturday was the “last chance” for the long-awaited vote.

But parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a key supporter of the Iranian- and Syrian-backed opposition, said the chances of a vote on Saturday are “slim if the situation remains unchanged.”

“I haven’t lost hope and if a vote does not take place on Saturday I will continue to call for successive sessions, even on New Year’s Day,” As-Safir newspaper quoted him as saying.

Welch met with Berri for 90 minutes on Wednesday. Neither man made any comment after the talks.

The US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs also met with Christian members of the Western-backed majority at the home of former president Amin Gemayel, ahead of talks over dinner with Social Affairs Minister Nayla Moawad.

Welch also met for the second consecutive day with parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.

Welch repeatedly called for a “free and democratic” election without further delay or foreign interference, saying it was important for Lebanon’s stability and to bolster the Christian community, from which presidents are drawn.

“The gist of the message we heard from Mr Welch is that the United States and the international community wish to see a president elected as soon as possible and support our candidate, the army chief,” majority MP Antoine Zahra told AFP.

Lebanon has been without a president since November 23 when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud’s term ended without a successor in place.

The government and the opposition have agreed on General Michel Sleiman as a compromise candidate to replace Lahoud but remain at odds over the election process and the shape of a new government.

The opposition is demanding a “basket” of guarantees on the new government line-up ahead of any vote.

Welch, who arrived in Beirut on Tuesday on his second visit in four days, has accused the opposition of blocking the vote at the behest of foreign powers and urged Berri to shoulder his responsibilities.

“The speaker of parliament must assume his constitutional responsibilities and a leadership role… and allow parliament to meet and to vote,” Welch said on Tuesday after talks with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Hariri.

“Members of parliament should elect a president without conditions and without any further delay,” he said.

Berri dismissed Welch’s criticism.

“Speaker Berri knows very well his responsibilities and hopes that others know theirs too,” his office said.

“Welch should put pressure on those who listen to him and obey him so that they, too, shoulder their responsibilities,” a statement added, referring to the government.

Key opposition leader Michel Aoun criticised Welch for failing to schedule a meeting with him.

“US policies represent a danger for Lebanon. Welch’s visit is incomplete and will not lead to a solution,” he said.

Meanwhile, pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat quoted France’s Sarkozy as warning of “new confrontations and the possible emergence of two (rival) governments” in Beirut if the vote founders again on Saturday.

Sarkozy told a group of Arab journalists in Paris on Monday that he had telephoned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the third time since November 20 to urge him to press opposition MPs to proceed with a vote.

“Saturday is the last chance,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy answers journalists' questions, 19 December 2007 at the Hotel Marigny in Paris (AFP)

French president Nicolas Sarkozy answers journalists’ questions, 19 December 2007 at the Hotel Marigny in Paris (AFP)

Lebanon's ruling majority leader Saad Hariri (C), flanked by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora (L) and Mufti Rashid Kabbani, the highest Sunni Muslim authority (R), prays 19 December 2007 the grave of his slain father Rafik Hariri (AFP)

Lebanon’s ruling majority leader Saad Hariri (C), flanked by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora (L) and Mufti Rashid Kabbani, the highest Sunni Muslim authority (R), prays 19 December 2007 the grave of his slain father Rafik Hariri (AFP)

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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