In Lebanon, dialogue over clashing agendas

Sectarian, political chiefs met this week to resolve deep rifts that followed Hariri assassination.

This country's political chiefs resumed a grueling and unprecedented national dialogue this week to forge a compromise over a host of issues that have paralyzed the government and led to a level of sectarian polarization not seen since the 1975-90 civil war.

The 14 Christian and Muslim leaders began the conference on March 2, but adjourned five days later amid sharp differences, mainly over the fate of the pro-Syrian president and the UN call for disarmament of the militant group Hizbullah. Although talks resumed Monday, they were adjourned again Tuesday for another week to allow participants time for more consultations.

The divisions here reflect the broader rifts emerging in the Middle East, pitting an alliance of Iran and Syria and their allies against the regional ambitions of the US and its European allies such as Britain and France.

"The Lebanese dialogue is essentially a background for clashing agendas: Iran and Syria on one hand and the US and France on the other," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, assistant professor of politics at the Lebanese American University. "This is only an internal Lebanese dialogue in that the participants are Lebanese, but the agendas are non-Lebanese. They are regional and international and all the strings are being pulled by foreign actors."

Among the conference participants is the Shiite Hizbullah organization, which forms a key component of the emerging anti-Western axis, grouping its patron Iran, strategic ally Syria, and militant Iraqi and Palestinian groups. Hizbullah spearheads opposition to Western influence here, which has grown significantly since Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April last year.

On the other side of the dialogue table are generally anti-Syrian Christian, Druze, and Sunni politicians who welcome the support of the US and France in eradicating the last vestiges of Syrian influence in Lebanon. They view Hizbullah's weapons and continuing ties to Damascus with unease.

This pattern of Lebanese sects seeking powerful foreign patrons to advance their domestic interests has a long history in Lebanon where no one group is large enough to successfully dominate all the others. And the country's rich religious and political diversity has made it a convenient arena for regional and international powers to pursue their strategic agendas and wage their political battles via Lebanese proxies.

"Clearly, the international interest here is not primarily driven by a righteous desire to help Lebanese democracy, because they sat around for a couple of decades not thinking about that at all," says Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based Jordanian political commentator. But "Lebanon's linkages with Iran, Israel, Syria, indirectly with Iraq are four big sticker items with which it's organically linked and, therefore, Lebanon can't avoid the attention of the big Western powers."

Indeed, foreign involvement here has reached near unprecedented levels since the Syrian troop withdrawal last year.

Syria and Iran continue to project influence mainly through Hizbullah. Regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Egypt have attempted to mediate - unsuccessfully so far - a rapprochement between Beirut and Damascus.

The US, Britain, and France are assisting in the process of overhauling Lebanon's cumbersome security agencies. Lebanon is subject to a raft of UN resolutions and has no less than three senior UN envoys engaged in Lebanese affairs.

One of them, Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor who heads the UN commission investigating the Hariri assassination, is due to present an interim report Thursday to the UN Security Council. Another UN envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, will submit next week a progress report on the implementation of resolution 1559, which includes a demand for Hizbullah's disarmament.

Following talks on Lebanon in Moscow Monday with Russian and Syrian officials, Mr. Larsen described the national dialogue as a "momentous event in Lebanese history: the first ever such dialogue without foreign interference or facilitation."

The fate of Hizbullah's armed wing is the thorniest, but not the only divisive subject up for debate at the conference.

Others include the future of Lebanon's pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud - whom anti-Syrian politicians are seeking to remove from office, normalizing Lebanese-Syrian relations, regulating armed Palestinian groups on Lebanese soil, and confirming the sovereignty of the Shebaa Farms, a remote Israeli-occupied mountainside along Lebanon's southeast border where Hizbullah fighters periodically battle Israeli troops.

Rival leaders reportedly made some progress Monday on the Shebaa farms issue and on working toward establishing full diplomatic ties with Syria and disarming Palestinian militants outside the country's 12 refugee camps.

Lebanese leaders insist that failure is not an option.

"The economy has suffered a lot and any delay will compound the problems," Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told the Lebanese As Safir newspaper on Monday. "If we do not agree today, we will agree in days, weeks or months, but every delay will increase the cost to Lebanon and to the Lebanese."

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