06/26/2006, 00.00
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Assad contradicts minister: Damascus "doors open" to Siniora and Hariri

Cardinal Sfeir has indirectly lent his support to those calling for the replacement of the President of the Lebanese Republic.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Ties between Beirut and Damascus, and between pro and anti-Syrians in Lebanon are becoming more complicated than ever. Today, President Assad contradicted his information minister and said he was ready to welcome the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and representatives of the anti-Syrian majority in Beirut's parliament, like Saad Hariri. Yesterday the Maronite Patrirach Nasrallah Sfeir, endorsed the position of those calling for the election of a new president of the republic to replace the pro-Syrian Lahoud.

The Maronite patriarch made his point during a homily on the environment and pollution during Mass in Bkerke. Cardinal Sfeir turned to the controversy that erupted when the Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud, was not invited to a meeting of Francophone countries in Bucharest, which was dedicated to the same themes the patriarch covered in his homily. The patriarch talked openly about a "sterile polemic" towards countries whose stand "conforms to international resolutions" and which was caused by an incident that "cannot question the historic alliances we have in the world". Cardinal Sfeir's reference was to Resolution 1559 of the UN Security Council which, among other things, calls for free elections for the president of the republic, which Lahoud has opposed so far, and to the favourable attitude towards renewal expressed by the French President Jacques Chirac.

The election of the new head of state is one of the themes being discussed – so far in vain – by the 14 parties to the "inter-Lebanese dialogue".

On the Syrian front, there was a "defensive" interview by the Syrian President, Bachar Al-Assad, given to the daily Al-Hayat, in which he said his country was prepared to welcome the Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora, "even without an agenda". "But he didn't come", he added. This was a reference to yet another controversy pitting Beirut and Damascus against each other, precisely because Siniora said he was ready to go to talk to Assad but was not invited to do so.

The Syrian President's stand appears to be in stark contrast with what the Syrian Information Minister, Mohsin Bilal, said on Friday 23, to the effect that "we have to wait until internal Lebanese dialogue is concluded" (started in Beirut in March and going on intermittently since). "When you have finished your meetings, you will be welcome in Syria".

Assad however said: "The doors "remain open" for Siniora, Saad Hariri and Michel Aoun. About the latter, who now stands accused of taking a pro-Syrian stand and who would candidate for the post of President of the Republic, Assad said that in the past "we used to have troubled relations... but now he doesn't attempt to attack Syria, and on some points he defends it".

On another matter which is at the centre of controversy, namely diplomatic ties between Lebanon and Syria – desired by the UN but thus far "postponed" by Damascus – Assad is now saying he has been proposing the establishment of diplomatic relations "for a long time".

Another point worthy of mention is that criticism has been leveled at the West because it has stopped pressuring the Syrian regime. From London, Ali Bayaouni, leader of the opposition that gathers secular and Kurdish groups, claimed western pressure had eased because of fears that the fall of the Damascus regime may lead to a replay in Syria of what is happening in Iraq.
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See also
Damascus refuses diplomatic ties with Beirut and Siniora's visit
Optimism voiced about resumed inter-Lebanese talks
Lebanon looks to Patriarch Sfeir during rough patch
Inter-Lebanese talks wind up with four-point accord
UN renews calls for militia disarmament in tormented Lebanon


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