Lebanese make desperate bid for peace
Beirut — Ayatollah Khomeini has made it to Hamra Street, the Champs Elysees of Beirut. The stern, turbaned visage of the Iranian leader is now plastered in brightly colored posters on shop exteriors, fences, and apartment blocks. His image is also available in plastic from street peddlers who market the cheap, locket-like necklaces so popular among Muslim militias.
Although Muslims generally do not want Lebanon to be an Islamic republic, the Shiites in particular admire the Ayatollah for his toppling of the United States-backed Shah.
This recent trend in the Lebanese capital helps explain why there is so much pessimism here about the national reconciliation talks set to open today in Lausanne, Switzerland. The conference is a desperate effort to end nine years of warfare that have claimed more than 100,000 lives.
For many who live here, things have simply gone too far. The accumulated feuding among the nation's nine main warlords and assorted other factions has evolved into an untenable way of life.
A diplomat compared cleaning up Lebanon's political mess with ridding Italy of the Mafia. ''They've both penetrated too deeply,'' he said.
There are still some optimists. Former President Suleiman Fran-jieh, a Lausanne participant, said before leaving Lebanon: ''The agony of the past nine years will end within the next two months.''
Former Premier Rashid Karami, another of the nine who will meet at the Beau Rivage Hotel, added: ''We shall succeed.''
But in light of the recent tough posturing by all sides, it is difficult to see how. And even diplomats who feel a compromise can be reached fear it will be sabotaged by extremists, be they Christian or Muslim.
Lebanese officials say President Amin Gemayel's goal is to keep the Swiss summit brief, and discussions limited to the formation of a national unity Cabinet that will include all opposition groups. The new government would then be charged with implementing reforms to even the balance of power among minority Christians and majority Muslims.
But the three main opposition forces have laid down two conditions for their participation in a new government. The talks could drag on for days. ''You can expect a lot of shouting,'' a Druze participant predicted.
Druze and Shiite leaders plan to raise the issue of responsibility for the past 17 months of conflict. They demand that Gemayel find and punish those involved in ''excesses'' carried out during his term - or accept blame himself and resign.
''We must make sure that what happened does not go unpunished and that it is not allowed to happen again,'' a conference participant said. ''It is not just the past 17 months we are worried about, it is the next 41/2 years (remaining in Gemayel's term).
If there is compromise, perhaps through a formal presidential apology and the establishment of investigation committees, then the opposition says it will insist on an agreement in principle on the nature of reforms, rather than wait until after a new government is formed. This is the stage at which all sides see potential for breakdown.
''There will be no compromise on essential reforms,'' said a Druze official who wrote the preliminary draft position paper for the opposition groups. ''Otherwise every time there is a change in demographic terms, then they'll fight again. We don't want a civil war every five years.''
The final details of the opposition paper were hashed out in Damascus over the weekend by leaders of the Shiite ''Amal'' movement, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, and the ''National Salvation Front.'' The main point is a demand for removal of confessionalism from all aspects of government.
Under the unwritten 1943 national convenant, Christians were given a 6-to-5 edge in all jobs - from parliamentary seats to high school principals - over Muslims. That would be scrapped, although the dissidents claim they would allow continuation of ''certain traditions'': a Christian as president, a Sunni Muslim as premier, and a Shiite as speaker of parliament.
The opposition paper also calls for a senate to be added to the unicameral parliament. This would preferably be headed by a Druze and would have the power of checks and balances over the president.
But Christian leaders balked at both major proposals. The two main Christian leaders - Phalange Party chief Pierre Gemayel and former President Camille Chamoun - finalized their own joint paper at talks Sunday. Sources in Beirut said they favored a federal system that decentralized power, so that each religious community would have more control over its own affairs.
Even more ominous was the announcement Friday from the Christian Lebanese Forces' militia that it will not be bound by any agreements struck in Lausanne. The announcement defies their parent political parties, such as the Phalange, which are attending the talks.
The Maronite Christians are particularly worried about their future now that Lebanon's treaty with Israel is canceled. They fear they will be swallowed up by the Islamic dominance in the Arab world and put under virtual Syrian control. The latest shake-up in the Syrian government has slightly exacerbated Christian concern since Syria's latest guarantees for the future of Lebanon came from Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Pessimism over Lebanon's prognosis was reflected in an outbreak of fighting over the weekend. Lebanese security sources are concerned about the possibility of sabotage in Beirut that could block a summit agreement.