BEIRUT

Lebanon News

U.S. urges free presidential election

Prime Minister Tammam Salam reviews honor guards during a ceremony at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Friday, March 21, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: U.S. President Barack Obama called Friday for the Lebanese presidential election to be held on time without any foreign interference, while stressing the importance of national unity and the disassociation policy on the conflict in Syria.

Obama’s remarks came during a telephone conversation he had with Prime Minister Tammam Salam during which he congratulated him on the formation of a coalition government, wishing him success in his mission, according to a statement released by Salam’s office.

“Obama stressed to Salam the importance of holding the presidential election within the constitutional deadline and without any foreign interference,” the statement said.

President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term in office ends on May 25, but there are no clear candidates for the country’s highest Christian post.

Obama also underlined the importance of Lebanese national unity and strengthening the country’s disassociation policy on the 3-year-old war in Syria. He pledged continued U.S. support for Lebanon, the statement said.

In return, Salam expressed his appreciation of the U.S. president’s support, saying Lebanon would maintain its democratic path.

Obama’s phone contact with Salam came a day after Lebanon’s 24-member coalition government easily won a vote of confidence in Parliament, ending almost a year of political deadlock. The vote gave Lebanon a fully empowered government for the first time since Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet resigned in March last year.

Obama’s remarks came as Sleiman Friday invited rival March 8 and March 14 leaders for a new round of National Dialogue to resume talks on the divisive issue of Hezbollah’s arms as part of a national defense strategy.

But Sleiman’s invitation comes at a time when his relations with Hezbollah are strained over the his repeated criticism of the party’s military involvement in Syria, raising doubts about the group’s participation in a new Dialogue session scheduled at Baabda Palace on March 31.

It also comes as the Lebanese Forces, which had boycotted previous Dialogue sessions, has yet to decide on whether to participate in intra-Lebanese talks.

Both Hezbollah and the LF are still undecided on Sleiman’s invitation for National Dialogue.

“We have not yet decided on participation in National Dialogue,” Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Fneish, one of two Hezbollah ministers in the new Cabinet, told The Daily Star.

He said a decision on Sleiman’s invitation would be made during a meeting of Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament next week.

LF MP Antoine Zahra said the party’s Executive Committee would meet soon to decide on the invitation.

“So far, there is no decision on whether to attend the National Dialogue session. This matter will be decided by the LF’s Executive Committee,”‘ Zahra told The Daily Star.

Sleiman said he sent invitations to members of the National Dialogue Committee to meet at 11 a.m. on March 31 to continue talks on the national defense strategy following the formation of an all-embracing, national interest Cabinet and the winning of Parliament’s confidence vote.

He also said the Dialogue session would convene in light of “critical developments and their repercussions on Lebanon as a result of the decisive events at the regional and international levels.”

“I am pleased to invite you to attend the National Dialogue session on the basis that dialogue is the only means to agree on how to confront the dangers threatening Lebanon, namely those coming from the Israeli enemy, terrorism, and the random proliferation of arms in the hands of citizens and residents,” Sleiman said in his invitation.

The last Dialogue session was held in September 2012 when Sleiman proposed a national defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its weapons but under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would have exclusive authority to use force.

The majority of political parties, barring the LF, attended the last Dialogue sessions. The LF, which recently voiced willingness for “serious dialogue” with Hezbollah, argued that the sessions were futile so long as Hezbollah is unwilling to hand over the party’s weapons to the state.

A day after his government won Parliament’s confidence, an official ceremony was held for Salam at the Grand Serail where he was welcomed by the its senior staff and advisers.

He met United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly, who vowed U.N. support for Salam’s government.

“The United Nations looks forward to working closely with the government in addressing many of the subjects highlighted in the policy statement, including the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the implementation of Resolution 1701,” Plumbly said in a statement after meeting Salam.

He praised the “absolute priority” being given by Salam and his colleagues to the security challenges facing Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Sleiman again criticized Hezbollah over its military role in Syria, saying the party’s actions were harming Lebanon.

Hitting back at those who have accused him of breaking his oath to the country on the resistance, Sleiman said in remarks published by Al-Joumhouria newspaper: “Did you forget that you [Hezbollah] went beyond your mandate on the issue of the resistance and went to Syria to fight there?”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 22, 2014, on page 1.

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