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Lebanese presidential crisis boils over

Maronite archbishops slam corruption, Syrian role

'Damascus deals with Lebanon as though it were a Syrian province'

By Nayla Assaf and Nada Raad

Daily Star staff

Thursday, September 02, 2004


BEIRUT: In its harshest comment to date, the Maronite Archbishops' Council requested Wednesday that Syria leave Lebanon and stop its interference in Lebanese politics, accusing it and its alleged puppet government here of leading the country to ruin.

"Syria gives orders, appoints leaders, organizes parliamentary and other elections, brings in whoever it wants and drops whoever it wants and interferes in all aspects of life: in the administration, the judiciary, the economy and particularly politics, through its representatives here and his aides," said the fifth call written by the council following its monthly meeting headed by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir in Diman. Syria, it said, "compromises Lebanese interests in international forums and protects the corrupt and the corrupters, while some of its nationals and some Lebanese share the spoils and trade in power.

"We say it simply: (...) Syria deals with Lebanon as though it were a Syrian province."

The declaration, an explosive alarm from the Maronite Church two days before Parliament meets to extend President Emile Lahoud's term, encompassed a series of corruption files involving high-ranking officials.

The declaration - the longest ever to be released by the council and the strongest since a Sept. 20, 2000, archbishops' statement - could return Bkirki's relations with Syria to square one, following improvements over the last year.

Meanwhile, in Nijmeh Square, Speaker Nabih Berri and members of Parliament's Bureau Committee set the time for Friday's extraordinary parliamentary session at 6pm, with Berri visiting Lahoud beforehand to update him on the latest developments.

Premier Rafik Hariri, on a personal visit to Sardinia, again said he would attend Friday's session, which is to finalize an amendment to Article 49 of the Constitution and thereby let Lahoud - whose mandate ends in November - remain in power for three more years.

To pass, the amendment needs the backing of 86 of 128 MPs - a number that is expected to be met, with reports that many anti-Lahoud MPs, including Hariri's bloc, have been coerced into accepting it.

Berri's Amal Movement, which controls 17 seats, said it would back the extension.

Also, Wednesday, a bloc of six MPs from Western Bekaa-Rashaya joined the pro-extension chorus, saying it would endorse the extension. Among them was presidential candidate Robert Ghanem, who was reported to support the move.

Meanwhile, the main action against the extension will likely take place Thursday, when leading intellectuals and opposition groups are expected to gather at the Press Federation as part of the "Petition to Defend the Republic and the Constitution." Both Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt's Democratic Gathering and the Christian opposition Qornet Shehwan Gathering, as well as several leading opposition figures, are expected to take part.

Qornet Shehwan, usually a main defender of liberty and public freedoms, will not meet independently. One member, Jbeil MP Fares Soueid, said: "Our main activity will be centered on Thursday's meeting, but after the elections Friday, I don't think anyone will be able to contain the crowd."

While opponents of a Lahoud extension are rallying against any amendment, representatives from pro-government parties - including Hizbullah, the Phalange Party, the Baath Party, the Amal Movement, the Tashnak Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the pro-government faction of the disbanded Lebanese Forces and the Popular Nasserite Organization - gathered at Tashnak offices to show support for Lahoud.

However, observers said the meeting was orchestrated by the government in order to discredit the opposition.

Following a meeting with his 16-MP bloc, Jumblatt said: "I don't think the international jumble (a draft UN resolution urging Syria to leave Lebanon) will be beneficial, but our beliefs will remain the same." He stressed that his group still opposes any amendment, adding that "a democratic Lebanon is a guarantee for Syria and the Arabs."

According to Jumblatt, most of the Democratic Gathering endorses the internal angle of the archbishop's declaration, though it differs on the "external angle" regarding Syria.

Jumblatt however, justified Sfeir's position, calling him one of the major patrons of the 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war and adding that the prelate is keen to see it applied.

Jumblatt also said that, following the archbishop's declaration in 2000, he asked for a redeployment of Syrian troops, "and since then, I have been asking for a correction of Lebanese-Syrian relations," in the best interests of both countries.

While Lahoud has been inviting MPs to visit him at Baabda Palace, Jumblatt said his gathering was "not accepting invitations," and would only visit Lahoud following Friday's vote.

A few hours before the archbishops' declaration, more than 100 Akkar Muslim scholars at the Islamic Endowment Center in Halba released a statement stressing that "Lahoud is a national symbol."

The scholars agreed that amending the Constitution is "an internal and private Lebanese matter, which the United States and its allies should not interfere in."

The scholars then thanked Syria for standing alongside Lebanon and helping it avoid internal "clashes and divisions."

Amid rapid domestic developments, external forces were reacting Wednesday to the presidential elections, as the US-French draft resolution supporting Lebanon's sovereignty was circulated to the United Nations Security Council late Tuesday.

And as Washington seeks to secure the resolution before Friday's parliamentary session, Lahoud also intensified his activities, meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Information Minister Michel Samaha, while Foreign Minister Jean Obeid met with envoys from the permanent Security Council members, briefing them on Lebanon's position on the proposed UN resolution.