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Lebanese leaders 'expect to elect a president' in 24 hours

Latest update : 2008-05-21

Lebanon's rival factions have reached an agreement in Doha to hold the long-postponed presidential election within "24 hours," according to Qatari Prime Minister Al-Thani. (Report: J.Creedon)

Rival Lebanese leaders clinched a deal on Wednesday to end an 18-month political feud that exploded into deadly sectarian fighting this month and nearly drove the country to a new civil war.
   
"An agreement has been reached" between the Western-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition, MP Ali Hasan Khalil told reporters after days of crisis talks in the Qatari capital Doha.
   
"We expect a vote to elect a president on Thursday or Friday."
   
The two sides have been negotiating since Friday in an Arab-mediated bid to end a political standoff that erupted into deadly street battles earlier this month, the worst sectarian unrest in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war.
   
"The achievement of Doha: A new page for Lebanon," was the triumphant headline on the pro-opposition Al-Akhbar newspaper, while the pro-government An-Nahar said: "Congratulations for the agreement on Lebanon."
   
Full details of the agreement, reached after the Qatari hosts announced a Wednesday deadline to receive responses to two initiatives aimed at ending the crisis, are set to be unveiled shortly.
   
Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper, which is close to the opposition, said the deal covers the election of army chief Michel Sleiman as president and the formation of a national unity government.
   
The rival factions had agreed last year on electing Sleiman as a successor to Damascus protege Emile Lahoud, who stepped down at the end of his term in November, leaving the deeply divided nation without a head of state.
   
But the Sunni-led government and the mainly Shiite Muslim opposition have long differed over power-sharing in a proposed unity government and a new electoral law.
   
Under Wednesday's deal, the ruling majority would have 16 cabinet seats and be able to choose the prime minister, As-Safir said.
   
The opposition would have 11 ministerial posts while another three would be nominated by the elected president, who under Lebanon's multiconfessional system must be a Maronite Christian.
   
Lebanon's parliament has so far put off 19 attempts to vote for a new president, with the next session previously planned for June 10.
   
The talks had been on a knife-edge on Tuesday after the Syria- and Iran-backed opposition refused to put off debating the electoral law, and insisted on a "blocking minority" in a unity government.
   
The proposed changes to the electoral law could prove decisive in determining the outcome of parliamentary elections due next year. Rival parties aim to secure as many as possible of the capital's 19 seats in the 128-member parliament.
   
The crisis erupted in November 2006 when six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, which has the support of Washington and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
   
It degenerated into street battles in early May which saw fighters from Hezbollah and its allies temporarily seize control of large swathes of west Beirut from their Sunni rivals and left a total of 65 people dead.
   
One delegate to the talks said Qatar had proposed including a clause in the final statement requiring all sides to renounce any new resort to armed violence in internal disputes.
   
Disagreements over Hezbollah's large arsenal also proved a stumbling block in the talks, with government representatives insisting that it be on the agenda and the Shiite militant group saying the issue is not up for discussion.
   
Hezbollah, the most powerful armed group in Lebanon, was the only movement not required to disarm after the civil war. It has ied to justify the exemption as a means to defend the country against Israel, with which it fought a devastating 2006 war.
   

Date created : 2008-05-21

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