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Sleiman summons rival parties for talks on Sept. 16


Latest update : 2008-09-10

As he hosted a meal for political and religious representatives to break the day's Ramadan fast Tuesday, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman invited the leaders of the country's rival political factions for a day of national dialogue on Sept. 16.

Lebanon's political leaders will begin a national dialogue on September 16 in a bid to resolve their political differences, President Michel Sleiman announced on Tuesday.

"I invite those who signed the Doha Agreement ... to come meet here in Baabda (the presidential palace) on Septemeber 16, 2008 at 11:00am (0800GMT)," Sleiman said at a meal he hosted for political and religious leaders to break the day's Ramadan fast.

On May 21, feuding political parties ended an 18-month-long political crisis with an agreement in the Qatari capital that led to Sleiman's election and the formation of a national unity cabinet.

The Doha Accord called for a national dialogue to be held under the president's auspices.

The talks beginning next week are set to focus on forming a "national defense strategy" in which the relationship between militias and the army in defending the country is to be defined.

Controversy over Hezbollah's weapons intensified after its fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid in July 2006 that sparked a 34-day war that devastated Lebanon.

It boiled over again when Hezbollah led an armed takeover of large swathes of predominantly Sunni west Beirut that left 65 dead during unrest in May, the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The national dialogue follows on from one a 2006 initiative in which 14 major Muslim and Christian, pro- and anti- Syrian leaders held several round-table meetings in hopes of forging political unity.

The talks were interrupted by the devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah.

They were the first such meeting without Syrian supervision since Lebanon's civil war. Syria maintained an almost three-decade-long military presence in Lebanon and withdrew in 2005 after the assassination of billionaire former premier Rafiq Hariri.

The Syria- and Iran- backed opposition has recently been calling on the expansion of the dialogue to include more opposition leaders, while the Western-backed ruling bloc rejected this position.

"They wanted a Syrian representative at the table and we wanted to keep the talks Lebanese," majority MP Akram Sheheyeb told AFP.

The 14 political leaders who participated in the 2006 dialogue were the signatories of the Doha Accord.

Sleiman spoke shortly after parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister, said he was open to a proposal by opposition leader and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah for direct talks.

"The doors of Qoraytem (Hariri's residence) are not closed to anyone," he had told reporters after meeting with Lebanese Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir.

"We are not against any meeting particularly one with Sayyid Nasrallah. We are for the meeting, but in its time," he added, without saying when that might be.

In comments published on Monday, the leader of the Shiite militant movement had urged Hariri to meet him for reconciliation talks.

Nasrallah said no objection had been raised to the idea of a meeting to bury the hatchet after the deadly clashes in Beirut and other areas between Hariri's supporters and Hezbollah in May.

"I have said that I am ready to sit down with him -- there's no disagreement about the principle of a meeting, only about the venue," Nasrallah said in comments carried by Lebanese newspapers.

"Our head-to-head has not taken place because of the security concerns facing both him and me."

Sleiman's announcement also came a day after Alawites and Sunnis in northern Lebanon's main city signed a reconciliation accord aimed at restoring state control to the port and ending sectarian bloodshed there.

At least 23 people were killed in Tripoli during clashes in May between residents of Jabal Mohsen, who mostly support the Hezbollah-led opposition, and those in Bab al-Tebbaneh who back the anti-Syrian ruling bloc.

Date created : 2008-09-10