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Lebanon cabinet cancels anti-Hezbollah measures

Latest update : 2008-05-15

Lebanon's pro-Western cabinet cancelled two measures it took against Hezbollah, which triggered the worst internal fighting in the country since the 1975-90 civil war. (Story: P. Hall)

BEIRUT, May 14 (Reuters) - Lebanon's government cancelled
measures on Wednesday that angered the Iranian-backed Hezbollah
movement and triggered the worst internal conflict since the
country's 1975-90 civil war.

The U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora
said in a statement after a meeting that it was taking the step
in line with a request by the Lebanese army to preserve civil
peace and promote an Arab League mediation effort to end
Lebanon's 18-month-old political crisis.

"The cabinet decided to agree on the suggestion of the army
commander... which includes the cancellation of the two
decisions," the statement, read by Information Minister Ghazi
al-Aridi, said.

Shortly after Aridi read the statement Hezbollah supporters
fired into the air in a Beirut suburb to celebrate what the
group sees as a major blow to the government and its allies.

Rescinding the ban on Hezbollah's communications network and
the sacking of Beirut airport's security chief, who is close to
the group, were two of Hezbollah's demands to lift its blockade
of the airport and its campaign of civil disobedience.

It is also a first step towards easing the broader standoff
between Siniora's government and opposition forces that has left
Lebanon without a president since November.

At least 81 people have been killed since violence broke out
on May 7 following the cabinet decisions against Hezbollah,
which routed its rivals in six days of fighting and briefly
seized control of parts of Beirut.

U.S. President George W. Bush, in Jerusalem to celebrate the
anniversary of Israel's founding in 1948, accused Iran on
Wednesday of using the Islamist Shi'ite Hezbollah to destabilise
Lebanon. He said: "This is an Iranian effort to destabilise
their young democracy."

He said the United States stood by Lebanon, a parliamentary
democracy since independence from France in 1943.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday Washington plans
to speed up assistance to the Lebanese army and reported
consultations were ongoing with U.N. Security Council members
over how to tackle the crisis.

"At this point, it is not entirely clear what kind of action
might come out of those discussions but certainly it is
important for the Council to be able to speak strongly on this
issue," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington.

"This is something that is of great concern to many Council
members and we will be working closely to see what we can come
up with," he added, without giving further details.

Iran has rejected accusations from Washington that it is
meddling in Lebanon and has blamed the violence on the United
States and Israel. "Iran is the only country not interfering in
Lebanon," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday.


Siniora earlier met a high-level Arab League mission which
is trying to mediate a solution to Lebanon's standoff.

The delegation, which includes eight Arab foreign ministers,
was led by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin
Jabr al-Thani and Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

Lebanon has been largely calm for two days and Hezbollah
activists removed some roadblocks on the airport road on
Wednesday to give the Arab mediators passage to the city.

In what they described as a reciprocal move, pro-government
Sunni forces partially lifted their border blockade on the main
road link between Beirut and Damascus.

Syria, which backs the Hezbollah-led opposition, threw its
weight behind the mediation effort on Wednesday. A foreign
ministry statement in Damascus urged all Lebanese parties to
cooperate constructively with its proposals.

If it succeeds in easing tension, the delegation is expected
to invite the rival leaders to Qatar for talks aimed at
resolving their protracted political conflict.

The broader political dispute revolves around how to share
power in cabinet and a new parliamentary election law.

Another political source, speaking before the talks, said
the pro-government leaders wanted guarantees Hezbollah would
pull out of the streets and vow not to use its guns against its
foes before any dialogue.

The fighting had raised concerns Lebanon was edging towards
wider civil strife among Druze and Sunni supporters of the
governing coalition and Shi'ites who back Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia, a backer of the governing coalition, has said
Hezbollah's actions, if backed by Iran, could threaten Tehran's
ties with Arab states. Iran has blamed the United States for the
violence in Lebanon.

Date created : 2008-05-15