03/02/2006, 00.00
LEBANON
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National dialogue begins as bishops distance themselves from Lahoud

by Youssef Hourani
The president is a divisive factor among Lebanese and must "assume his responsibilities before God and History," say the prelates.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – With downtown Beirut under tight security, a 'national dialogue' began this morning in the halls of the National Assembly involving 15 party caucus leaders. The goal is to address some fundamental issues such as amending the electoral law, implementing UN Resolution 1559 and deciding the future of President Émile Lahoud should he refuse to resign.  The pro-Syrian Lahoud, who is already under pressure from the assembly's majority to quit, now must confront Maronite bishops telling him to "assume his responsibilities" and realise that he is a "cause of division among the Lebanese".

In their statement released at the end of their monthly meeting chaired by Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the bishops said that whilst a section of the population backed President Lahoud "all the way" upholding the legitimacy of his mandate extended two years ago under Syrian occupation, another section wants him removed from office. This "has paralysed the political life of the country, caused great damage at all levels and has wrecked its political institutions".

The bishops, who have always been in favour of a national dialogue, write that the president "is the only one who can judge whether staying is good for the country or harmful to reconciliation. He must assume his responsibilities before God and History".

Lahoud was not invited to the national dialogue meeting which might prove decisive for the country's future. It is the first such event in the recent history of lebanon after the 1989 Arab League-sponsored meeting in Taif in Saudi Arabia that ended its 15-year civil war.

National Assembly Speaker Nabih Berri is chairing the meeting. Last year's Hariri assassination is among the topics on the agenda, which also includes the findings by the UN commission of inquiry into the same affair; the future of the current president if he chooses not to resign; proposals to amend the electoral law, and the implementation of UN Resolution 1559 on disarming militias, i.e. armed groups under the command Hezbollah and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

According to some sources, the meeting of 15 party caucus leaders should last about a week. Police and army have deployed more than 3,000 officers and soldiers around the National Assembly Building in Star Square and banned traffic downtown Beirut to ensure maximum security.

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