BEIRUT: Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri warned Friday of sectarian strife in Lebanon and urged national unity to prevent the reverberations of the 17-month turmoil in Syria from spilling over into the politically divided country.
Berri also said the next two days would be decisive in ending the long-simmering mystery over the case of Lebanese Shiite cleric Imam Musa Sadr, who vanished during an official visit to Libya in 1978.
He called on the Syrian government, opposition groups and armed rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime to enter into dialogue to end more than 17 months of a bloody confrontation that has left more 20,000 people dead, according to opposition monitors.
Berri spoke at a mass rally organized by his Amal Movement in the southern market town of Nabatieh to commemorate the 34th anniversary of Sadr’s disappearance. The rally, attended by Sadr’s sister Rabab and eldest son Sadereddine, ministers and Hezbollah and Amal MPs, drew thousands of Amal supporters waving the party’s green flags as well as Lebanon’s flag.
“We are living in a state of escalating worry of sectarian and confessional strife, which is threatening brotherly countries,” Berri said in a clear reference to the ongoing sectarian violence in neighboring Syria.
Invoking to the devastating 1975-90 civil war that killed more than 150,000 people, he said: “We, in Lebanon, after having suffered as a result of small and big wars, have the right to draw the attention of everyone that unity is the answer to strife.”
Berri vowed not to be dragged into a sectarian conflict in Lebanon, but warned of Sunni-Shiite strife in the region. “I call on Muslims to be vigilant that the enemies of Islam are trying to take us into strife. We will not go to any strife. I have already cautioned that strife in the [Middle] East will enter every home,” he said.
He added that the current turmoil in Syria was aimed at destroying the country’s regional role, which supports anti-Israel resistance movements, and at establishing a modern Sykes-Picot agreement.
The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, worked out by British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat Georges Picot, effectively handed over control of Syria, Lebanon and Turkish Cilicia to the French and Jordan, Palestine, and areas around the Gulf and Baghdad to the British.
“Syria does not deserve to be plagued by death and destruction ... We appeal to the Arab mind and the Syrian mind to halt the bloodshed and follow the dialogue road,” Berri said.
He criticized Arab countries for failing to act to put an end to the unrest in Syria. “I don’t see a sufficient Arab role to put a happy end to what is happening in Syria,” he said.
Berri, a strong ally of Assad, called on the Non-Aligned Movement summit, which ended in Tehran Friday, to maintain its support for resolving the Syrian crisis through the new envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
Berri, leader of the Amal Movement, said that one of the aims of upheaval in the region was to safeguard Israel’s security and try to change the Arab-Israeli conflict into an Arab-Persian conflict and into a Muslim-Muslim conflict.
Berri welcomed Saudi King Abdullah’s recent call for establishing a center for dialogue among various Muslim sects in Riyadh.
He defended Hezbollah in the face of March 14 parties’ calls for the resistance to surrender its weapons to the Lebanese Army.
“We stress on national unity as being the sharpest weapon to confront any Israeli attack,” Berri said.
“Lebanon’s strength lies in its resistance and its unity. Lebanon’s strength is its Army and so is its unity. We don’t consider the resistance and border as two Shiite attributes. They are the state’s responsibility.”
Berri welcomed Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Lebanon from Sept. 14-16. “Lebanon is a country of sectarian coexistence and a permanent center of dialogue between East and West and among religions,” he said.
The results of investigations, to come in the next two days, will offer a decisive ending to the ambiguity over Sadr’s disappearance in Libya, Berri also said.
Sadr, the founder of the Shiite Amal Movement, went missing along with his two companions Sheikh Mohammad Yacoub and journalist Abbas Badreddine during a visit to Libya on Aug. 31, 1978. Berri and Shiite religious leaders have accused Libya’s toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi of responsibility.
“We are examining every detail relating to the [Sadr] case without ignoring anything. But the truth remains confined to the [Libyan] regime’s narrow circles whom Gadhafi had trusted,” Berri said in his speech.
“Our contacts have widened to include Libya’s neighboring states where Gadhafi’s sons and henchmen have been detained. We have received positive signals about the possibility of an interrogation [of former Libyan officials]. Tomorrow [Saturday] or Sunday will be one of the decisive dates in this issue,” he added.
Berri dismissed as “baseless” reports claiming that the bodies of Sadr and his two companions had been found in Libya.
“A crisis cell” including representatives of the Sadr family, the Amal Movement, the Foreign Affairs and Justice Ministries and security agencies, was pursuing the case.
Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman praised Sadr’s “patriotic stances and his limitless openness to all segments of the Lebanese people.” “He [Sadr] did not differentiate between a mosque and a church. He knocked on all doors in an attempt to safeguard Lebanon and its unity, and ward off strife and dangers. He called for unity to face the Israeli ambitions and aggression,” Sleiman said in a statement released by his office upon his return to Beirut from Tehran after attending the Non-Aligned Movement summit.
Meanwhile, Sidon’s Sheikh Ahmad Assir cancelled his usual Friday protest in order to avert clashes with Hezbollah and Amal supporters on their way to Nabatieh to attend the rally.
A security source told The Daily Star that it would have been a risk for Assir and his supporters to carry out their weekly protest and block the road connecting Sidon to south Lebanon, since the Lebanese Army would have had difficulties intervening in any clashes.
“Everyone was waiting for us today to see whether we would take to the streets or block the road,” Assir said in his Friday sermon in the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque. Assir blocked this road in a monthlong sit-in in July and August.
Referring to Sadr, Assir said: “He is a generous imam and we support the oppressed. There is freedom of speech in Lebanon.”
“It is time our partners realize that we should live as partners and side by side in this country,” Assir said, reiterating his opposition to what he described as Hezbollah’s “hegemony.”
However, he voiced disappointment over Sleiman’s failure to address the issue of Hezbollah’s arsenal, saying: “We received a promise from the leaders but they failed us.”