Arab Mediators Set Deadline, Present Two Offers to Rival Lebanese Factions

Arab mediators scrambled Tuesday to salvage Lebanese crisis talks in Qatar, offering rival factions two drafts on how to end their country's 18-month political deadlock. They also gave the feuding camps a day to consider the proposals.

The talks follow an Arab League-mediated deal that got the Lebanese to end a week of violence, worst since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, and agree to hold negotiations in Doha on overcoming the crisis that has paralyzed the country.

The move Tuesday is seen as a final attempt by the Arab hosts after the negotiations, now in their fourth day, teetered near collapse.

Qatari minister of state for foreign affairs, Ahmed bin Abdullah al-Mahmoud, said the two proposals were the "best solutions" the mediators came up with to resolve Lebanon's crisis. He would not reveal their content, and neither would the two Lebanese camps.

A lawmaker from the Hezbollah-led opposition, Ali Hassan Khalil, later denied reports by some media in Qatar that their camp had already rejected both proposals.

"The opposition will continue talks in Doha until we reach an agreement." Khalil told The Associated Press by telephone. "We are determined not to return to Lebanon without an agreement."

But Hezbollah ally, Christian opposition leader Gen. Michel Aoun, said that he would return to Lebanon on Wednesday, signaling that the Doha talks would end soon.

"I think (I'm returning to Beirut) tomorrow because there should be tonight a final and frank answer from the governing coalition about the entire agreement," Aoun said in an interview with Lebanon's private Al-Jadeed Television late Tuesday.

He said an agreement hinged largely on the parliamentary majority accepting the opposition's demands for veto power in a national unity government and an electoral law deemed satisfactory to both sides.

Opposition lawmaker Abbas Hashem struck a pessimistic note about the outcome of the Doha talks.

"I think we are at a dead-end," Hashem told the private LBC Television late Tuesday.

The talks have so far focused on two key issues — a national unity government and the electoral law — which would also lead to the election of a new Lebanese president. But the negotiations hit snags from the very start, with neither side willing to give concessions.

The new law is significant because it will determine how the sides distribute power in the capital and would directly influence the outcome of next parliament elections in 2009.

Hezbollah legislator Hussein Haj Hassan said one key argument came up when the government side, which holds only a slim parliament majority, tried to draft the election law by drawing up Beirut districts in a way that would guarantee them victory in the 2009 elections.

By late Tuesday, the sides were back to working in joint committees on how to divide Beirut into electoral districts.

Lebanon's crisis dissolved into violence May 7, with clashes between pro-government groups and the Hezbollah-led opposition raging in the streets of Muslim west Beirut, the central mountains and the north. At least 67 people died.

An agreement in Doha is meant to lead to the election of compromise presidential candidate, Gen. Michel Suleiman, commander of the army. Lebanon has had no president since pro-Syria Emile Lahoud's term ended in November.

The Hezbollah-led opposition has insisted the solution be a package deal, and include both the composition of the government and the election law, before the rival factions return to Beirut, where Suleiman's election would follow in parliament.

By giving the two sides more time, the Qatari hosts also may be seeking to consult with the Saudi leadership, which wields influence over Lebanon's Western-backed parliament majority. The Lebanese opposition is allied with Iran and Syria.

Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani was in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, attending a summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. The GCC leaders meeting in the Saudi city of Dammam issued a statement expressing hope the Lebanese would reach a solution.

Reflecting support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government, Saudi Information Minister Iyad Madani on Monday said the meeting in Doha should not give in to "non-Arab schemes" for Lebanon — a veiled reference to the Shiite Hezbollah group and Tehran. Madani said the solution to the Lebanese crisis should "guarantee the independence of Lebanon from any foreign domination."

Dozens of Lebanese handicapped during the civil war held a sit-in near the airport, a rally similar to one that saw Lebanese politicians off to Doha last Friday. The crowd held signs with a message to the leaders, in English and Arabic: "If you don't agree, don't come back!!!"