Opposition pulls rug from under Gemayel
Beirut — The main condition for peace in Lebanon now appears to be the resignation of President Amin Gemayel. After 17 months in office, he has become the symbol of the political impasse that has blocked reconciliation among the nation's rival sects.
Mr. Gemayel's appeal for an unconditional cease-fire and a new political dialogue among the warring factions appeared to have backfired Monday, as fighting spread to all parts of Beirut. Two leading opposition figures, Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt, rejected his proposals and called for him to step down.
''We are in the end now, believe me,'' said an angered Mr. Berri, leader of the Shiite Muslim ''Amal'' movement and previously the most conciliatory of the opposition figures. ''Now he tries to make another government, and I try to prepare another president. There will be no cease-fire until Gemayel is out.''
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said Monday that any dialogue with Gemayel was ''impossible.''
The capital dissolved into chaos by lunchtime Monday as the government ordered a shoot-on-sight curfew of anyone in the streets.
Businesses closed down hurriedly as thousands fled to the safety of shelters. The shrill whine of horns blared as cars dashed for cover from shooting, usually a block or two away. The thunder of artillery, rockets, and automatic rifle fire echoed throughout Beirut in the worse clashes since last August when the Army tried to clear Muslim militias from the downtown residential areas. At time of writing, there was no report whether United States Marines were under fire at their base at Beirut airport.
The eruption of violence came just hours after a Lebanese Army communique said ''armed forces have been ordered to observe a cease-fire and not to retaliate except to ensure safety of their positions in self-defense.''
US advisers to the Army said government forces would not move to clear out areas taken over during the past four days of fighting by Shiite militias for fear of triggering an even bigger confrontation.
The breakdown followed Gemayel's appeal Sunday for the resumption of the Geneva peace talks Feb. 27. Then, he said, all proposals for changes in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government were open for discussion.
Gemayel also indicated a willingness to seek changes in the May 17 agreement between Israel and Lebanon on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. Muslim groups have condemned the pact because it allows for a residual Israeli military presence on Arab land.
''Now that this accord has not ensured the withdrawals, Israeli as well as Syrian, but rather dragged us into an embarrassing impasse that made me refrain from ratifying it, I believe with open objectivity in continuing to seek a formula that would ensure total withdrawals from all Lebanese territory to safeguard our sovereignty and independence,'' he said.
In a conciliatory gesture to Syria, Gemayel said consultations ''must be enhanced and intensified so that we can discuss in depth matters of destiny . . . in order to arrive at a formula that would guarantee the security of our two countries.''
Gemayel said he would offer an outline in Geneva for changes that would even the balance of power between the Christian minority, which dominates the government, and the Muslim majority.
The initial reaction was typified by one official, who suggested ''it's too late for that now. Those are suggestions he should have made months ago when he might have had a response. Not now.''
As Beirutis listened to the address, heavy artillery clashes reverberated in the background, another indication of the response to his offer. By morning, the Army said Shiite militias had launched ''lightning assaults'' on key Army positions, which were backed by artillery fire from Druze positions in the Shouf mountains behind Syrian lines.
Early Monday, Gemayel began negotiations with religious and political leaders on the formation of a new government, even though the presidential palace in Baabda was reportedly hit by shellfire.
However, the difficulty of finding Muslims willing to serve in a new cabinet was underlined by the fact that several former prime ministers, all Sunni Muslims, went ahead with their scheduled trip to Damascus for consultations with the Syrian leadership. Others said publicly they would not take the job if offered.
There were also some serious questions about how long the government could hold out if defections from the Army continue. Although Western sources claimed that fewer than 200 members of the Lebanese Army had laid down their arms rather than fight against their own sects, there was evidence at several locations in west Beirut that increasing numbers in the high hundreds had at least temporarily decided to avoid further fighting.