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Envoy denies Saudi role in Lebanon crisis
File - Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri attends a ceremony in Beirut, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir )
File - Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri attends a ceremony in Beirut, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir )
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BEIRUT: Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Assiri rejected in remarks published Sunday Hezbollah’s accusations that the kingdom was obstructing the formation of a new Cabinet and preventing Parliament from meeting to approve draft laws.

Assiri also reiterated Saudi support for Lebanon’s stability and sovereignty.

The envoy’s remarks come on the eve of President Michel Sleiman’s crucial visit to Saudi Arabia during which he will hold talks with King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman on the deepening political crisis, attempts to restart the stalled National Dialogue between the rival factions, and the impact of the 31-month war in Syria on Lebanon’s security and stability.

Sleiman’s visit, scheduled for Monday, comes against the backdrop of a heated campaign launched by Hezbollah against Saudi Arabia and its key ally, the Future Movement, which the party blamed for the seven-month Cabinet deadlock and paralysis in Parliament.

It also comes amid deep national divisions between the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the March 14 coalition over the conflict in Syria. The Lebanese crisis has been deepened by Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Referring to political divisions in Lebanon, Assiri urged the feuding parties to engage in “a constructive dialogue” to resolve their differences.

“Saudi Arabia wants to preserve Lebanon and its unity. This is at the crux of its concerns,” he said in a televised interview. “The kingdom has no demand except the demand to intensify efforts for dialogue and for preserving Lebanon.”

In another interview with the Saudi daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Assiri indirectly dismissed Hezbollah’s accusations, saying those launching media campaigns against the kingdom lacked credibility among the Lebanese people.

“Those behind the campaign against the kingdom lack credibility among the Lebanese people and their intention can be summed up as an attempt to mislead a section of the Lebanese public opinion,” Assiri said.

In an indirect reference to Hezbollah’s military engagement in the Syrian war, he said: “The goal [of the campaign] is to divert attention away from a path in which [Hezbollah] has entered with a regional orientation and abandoned its declared principles.”

“There is no need to recall the kingdom’s stances toward Lebanon and all sections of its people,” Assiri added.

“All of Lebanon realizes the kingdom’s true stances and its permanent keenness on respecting Lebanon’s sovereignty and non-interference in its internal affairs,” he said. He added that Saudi-Lebanese relations would not be affected by “other parties’ calculations.”

Senior Hezbollah officials, including party leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, have launched a vehement verbal campaign against Saudi Arabia in the past few weeks, accusing it of using its March 14 allies to obstruct the formation of a new Cabinet and paralyze Parliament by boycotting its sessions.

Hezbollah has also accused the Future Movement and its March 14 allies of implementing an alleged Saudi-U.S. plan to target the resistance party and punish it for its role in Syria.

For their part, the Future Movement and its March 14 allies have repeatedly accused Hezbollah of obstructing the Cabinet formation with its demand for veto power and its insistence that the tripartite equation, “the Army, the people and the resistance,” be mentioned in the Cabinet’s policy statement.

Assiri also highlighted Sleiman’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia.

“The visit will be an occasion to reiterate support for the Baabda Declaration, which calls for neutralizing Lebanon, particularly from the crisis in Syria,” he said. “Sleiman’s visit is of utmost importance given the deep-rooted brotherly ties between the two brotherly countries and peoples.”

Meanwhile, Sleiman denied media reports that the Cabinet crisis and the extension of his six-year-term in office, which expires in May 2014, would be among topics of discussion with top Saudi officials.

“There are interpretations and speculations [about the visit] but they’re all unrealistic and inaccurate with regard to the Cabinet [formation] and the extension [of my term],” Sleiman told Al-Mustaqbal newspaper. “I am the president, not a president-designate and I will not speak about the issue of government formation with Saudi officials.”

“The main themes of my visit will be Lebanon, Lebanese expatriates [in Saudi Arabia], the situation in Syria and Iranian-Saudi ties, all of which have repercussions on Lebanon,” he added.

He also reiterated his opposition to the extension of his mandate. “I will not accept attempts to extend [my term] and I will not discuss the extension issue in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“I challenged Parliament’s extension of its mandate [earlier this year]. How could I approve my own extension?” he asked, adding that extending a president’s term was undemocratic.Asked whether he would oppose a presidential candidate with a military background, Sleiman said: “Everyone has the right to run but a constitutional obstacle should be eliminated if a [member of the] military were to run.”

Sleiman also said he would meet former Prime Minister Saad Hariri during his one-day visit to Riyadh. Despite low expectations by the March 8 camp, Sleiman said he expected his visit to Saudi Arabia to be beneficial for Lebanon.

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai was also optimistic about Sleiman’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

“There is great friendship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. The president’s visit in this difficult time in which we are living will have big fruitful results on our crisis in the region,” Rai told reporters at Beirut airport after returning from a visit to the Vatican.

He praised Sleiman’s rejection of the extension of his mandate. “We support him [Sleiman] with all our strength that the presidential elections be held on its constitutional date with the election of a new president,” Rai said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 11, 2013, on page 1.
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