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LEBANON: Wobbling In Uncertainty

Analysis by Mona Alami

BEIRUT, May 6 2008 (IPS) - As clashes between supporters of Lebanon’s feuding factions become increasingly frequent, Lebanon seems to be walking a fine line between stability and violence.

Internally, the country’s parliament has been closed for three sessions, leading to an ongoing crisis and a still vacant presidency. Externally, fears abound regarding volatile relations with Israel, especially since Israeli officials began voicing criticism of the performance of UN troops deployed in the south.

Political deadlock has gripped the country since former president Emile Lahoud stepped down from office in November. The 19th parliamentary session for presidential elections ended with yet another postponement on Apr. 22. Another session was tentatively scheduled for May 13 by parliament speaker and Amal party head, Nabih Berri.

The governing majority is calling for immediate election of the consensus presidential candidate, commander-in-chief General Michel Suleiman. However, despite having already agreed to the election of Suleiman, the opposition argues that various issues – such as the composition of the next government, revision of the parliamentary electoral law, as well as filling key positions in the administration – must be decided on before voting in a new president.

The pro-Western March 14 majority – so named after the massive 2005 demonstrations on that date protesting the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri – is comprised of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), the Christian Kataeb party and Lebanese Forces as well as the Sunni Future Movement. The opposition bloc consists of two Shia movements, Hezbollah and Amal, as well as the Christian Marada party, which is known for its Syrian and Iranian connections, and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

An ease in tensions seems to have temporarily emerged, however, with Berri’s initiative to begin a new round of national dialogue (the first round was launched in 2006). The March 14 coalition accepted the invitation for talks, and delegated one representative, Saad Hariri, head of the Future Movement and son of the slain Rafik Hariri, who said last week that he was certain a new president would be elected May 13.

Without the participation of each party’s leader, however, the dialogue will be reduced to bilateral talks between Hariri and Berri. “The 14th of March majority coalition is waiting for a response from Speaker Berri regarding their request for a bilateral meeting,” Future Movement MP Ammar Houri told IPS.

Both sides seem obstinately trapped in a vicious circle, with each group insisting on guarantees for attending the meeting. While March 14 wants guarantees that the dialogue will lead to an election, the opposition wants clarifications regarding the structure of the next cabinet.

As local political factions pursue their never-ending quarrels, tensions are mounting along the country’s southern border.

The Israeli daily Haaretz stated that Israeli high officials are accusing the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) of covering up Hezbollah activities and misleading the UN Security Council.

According to Israeli reports, there have been at least four cases in the last six months during which UNIFIL soldiers identified armed Hezbollah operatives, but did not take any measures or disclose detailed information to the UN Security Council. Haaretz backed its story by claiming that the recent interception by a UN patrol of unidentified gunmen driving a truck filled with explosives was not reported to the Security Council.

“The accusations voiced in the Haaretz are unfounded,” says Andrea Tenenti from UNIFIL’s Public Information office. The spokesperson, however, admits that the patrol did intercept a suspect truck escorted by gunmen.

“We could not determine the truck’s cargo and were waiting for the arrival of the Lebanese army to intervene as per our rule of engagement set by the Security Council. The encounter did not last more than a few minutes, after which the gunmen fled,” said Tenenti. The spokesperson said the incident was immediately reported to the Security Council, contrary to the Haaretz allegations.

“We have checked some 3,500 vehicles and 4,500 people since April 15. I believe the situation is stable in our area of operation, which is limited to the region south of the Litani River,” said Tenenti.

If the dialogue between the opposition and majority takes place, much attention will be needed to bring some stability to the volatile situation in south Lebanon.

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