BEIRUT // Efforts by Lebanon's feuding political and religious factions to end more than two years of violent outbursts moved forward yesterday as the top political leader of Lebanon's Sunnis agreed to a meeting with his bitter rival from Hizbollah. After a delegation from Hizbollah's parliamentary leader Mohammed Raad met late Wednesday with Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, whose Sunni party dominates the current government, the first meeting between Mr Hariri and Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chief, in more than two years was proposed.
Mr Raad said the summit could happen "very soon", and Hizbollah officials said it might take place before the end of Ramadan. "We are not feuding neighbours," Mr Raad told reporters of the Sunni-Shiite split. "We are brothers in one house. We can differ, but brotherhood and cordiality persist to bind us and form the atmosphere that we all seek to safeguard our homeland." Hizbollah and its opposition allies have been at odds - occasionally violently - with the pro-western government led by Mr Hariri's party since the end of the 2006 war with Israel. Moreover, the opposition has accused the government of supporting Israeli and American efforts to undermine the resistance group.
The rivalry led to Hizbollah and its allies paralysing the government for nearly two years, only agreeing to a unity government in the wake of fighting between the opposition and government loyalists that killed more than 60 people in May. Mr Raad said this week that a face-to-face meeting between Mr Hariri and Sheikh Nasrallah could solve many of Lebanon's political problems, so the announcement was hailed as a significant breakthrough for a national reconciliation effort led by Michel Suleiman, the new president.
Alan Aoun, a senior official with Hizbollah's key Christian allies, the Free Patriotic Movement, described the breakthrough as a way to prevent future violence in Lebanon. "We always called for reconciliation between political factions, and we welcome such a move bringing Hizbollah and the Future movement together," Mr Aoun said. "Such move should reflect the [will of the] streets ? Knowing that political differences between parties got to a level of violence on the streets, clashes and hatred between sects and people [which we need to avoid]."
Mr Suleiman also met with George W Bush, the US president, for the first time yesterday during a trip to the United Nations and was set to discuss Hizbollah's weapons, relations with Syria and a possible role for Lebanon in a regional peace dialogue between Syria and Israel that is in its infancy. But Mr Suleiman faces more important domestic pressures and recently convened a national dialogue to discuss a range of political issues, including Hizbollah's role as an armed "state within a state", that will meet again on Nov 5.
This effort has been complemented by a series of meetings between rival factions over the past month designed to give the national talks a chance to end the tensions over politics, religion and regional security that have vexed Lebanon throughout much of the modern era. Recent meetings have eased tensions between Sunni and Allawite in Tripoli, where fighting killed more than 20 people this summer, as well as a successful effort to end rivalries within Lebanon's tiny but powerful Druze community.
One potential dividend of the breakthrough between Hizbollah and its rivals at the Future Movement was an immediate agreement brokered by Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker and a key opposition leader and Hizbollah ally, yesterday to remove the thousands of inflammatory political posters that have become ubiquitous throughout Beirut. Young men frequently battle each other over these posters, which are used to mark control by various factions of key neighbourhoods and intersections.
But even with movement fostering some optimism that brighter days could be ahead for Lebanon's fractious political scene, Beirut's residents have different warnings to their political leaders. One Hizbollah supporter, Hassan Atwi, 31, said that in his view Lebanon's Sunnis do not grasp the importance of the regional politics happening around them. "We have no problem with our brother Sunnis, but they seem to not understand Hizbollah and the resistance," he said. "They want the Americans to save them and build them a country. They are wrong, they should get close to the resistance, and Saad Hariri should do what his father did, get close and have good relations with the Islamic resistance."
But just a few kilometres away, in the militantly Sunni neighbourhood of Tarek Jdiddeh, which saw heavy fighting in May, the clashes still leave Sunnis bitter at Hizbollah for breaking a promise to never turn the guns of the resistance on their fellow Lebanese. According to Abu Omar, 42, more than dialogue is needed. "The reconciliation is not going to bring our pride back we lost when they [Hizbollah] invaded Beirut in May and turned their resistance weapons on us," he said. "The reconciliation might take effect only if Hassan Nasrallah apologises to us, the Sunnis of Beirut. Then it might be a sign of good will, and will ease the sectarian conflict between us."
But many Lebanese seem to agree with Maya, 23, who refused to give her sectarian background. She supports reconciliation, but suspects that each side's political leaders have only their own interests at heart. "I think when Lebanese people see their leaders getting along, people feel better," she said. "The reconciliation is a good step - maybe it will help stabilise the country and the economy that the politicians don't seem to care about. I have a call for all politicians: leave people alone and stop agitating for your own interests. We almost had a civil war in May because of their dirty games."