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Lebanon postpones choosing new prime minister

Three-way summit between Turkey, Qatar and Syria in Damascus seeks to find solution to brewing crisis after collapse of government over Hariri tribunal

DAMASCUS // Lebanon has postponed nominating a new prime minister for at least a week, as diplomatic efforts to avoid a brewing crisis continued yesterday, with a three-way summit between Turkey, Qatar and Syria in Damascus.

Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, hosted the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, for talks on the collapse of the Lebanese government, and to discuss the UN tribunal investigating the murder of Rafiq Hariri, which has become the focal point for Lebanon’s political woes.

The summit was designed to “prevent escalation”, said Syria’s official news agency, SANA. It also said that Damascus, Doha and Ankara supported the move by the Lebanese president, Michael Suleiman, to delay nominations for a new prime minister until next Monday. He had been scheduled to begin consultations over the post yesterday.

“The three leaders welcomed Lebanon’s decision to postpone parliamentary consultations, until the political efforts are mobilised to help the Lebanese find a solution, that serves the interests of the Lebanese people and Lebanon’s stability,” SANA said.

Yesterday’s summit of three influential regional players, including Syria and Qatar, key architects of the 2008 Doha accords, which staved off the last Lebanese political crisis, as the country seemed poised to slide into another civil war, came amid a growing sense of urgency and alarm over the situation in Beirut.

The Netherlands-based Prosecutors for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) announced last night that prosecutors had handed over indictments to the pre-trial judge for his review.

The assessment may take many months, and the contents of the indictments are to remain secret. It is widely expected that members of Hizbollah will be accused of involvement in the Rafiq Hariri’s murder.

Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, sought yesterday to bolster the tribunal’s work. At a news conference in Abu Dhabi he insisted that the “process should not be linked to any political debate”.

Such hopes, however, appear forlorn, long since shattered by on-the-ground realities. Mr Hariri’s killing, and the international investigation into it, have become the focal point around which Lebanon’s fragile political consensus, between pro-western blocs and pro-Iranian blocs, is fraying.

One side wants the tribunal halted, while the other insists it must go ahead, come what may, leaving little apparent room for compromise.

Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant movement, withdrew its support for the coalition government last Wednesday, effectively collapsing the administration of Saad Hariri, the son of the asassinated prime minister, just as he was meeting the US president, Barack Obama, in Washington.

Mr Hariri, with support from the international community, including the US, had refused to disavow the tribunal, as Hizbollah had demanded, prompting the resignation of its ministers.

Backed by Syria and Iran, Hizbollah is refusing to recognise the tribunal, saying it has become a political witch-hunt orchestrated by their common enemy  Israel, and its superpower sponsor, the United States, designed to weaken the group.

Hizbollah has fought a series of wars against Israel, to popular acclaim among the Arab peoples. But it is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and is viewed in the West, and by many Arab regimes, as well as a significant proportion of Lebanese, to be a dangerous extension of Iranian power.

Extensive coordinated diplomatic shuttling by Syria and Saudi Arabia, two states with significant influence over the broad opposing factions in Lebanon, collapsed earlier this month.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has since proposed forming an international “contact group” to mediate the Lebanon crisis, comprising Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States, Qatar and Turkey.

Mr Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said yesterday he was ready to participate in the group, but called on Iran to participate as well. Ali Akbar Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister, was expected in Turkey for talks on Lebanon yesterday evening.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said that while his country supported the French initiative, Ankara wanted both Syria and Iran to be part of that effort so all relevant parties were properly represented.

“In general, those participating in the meeting are supporting the Hariri government, that way, the international community would be split. Iran-Syria will be left in one corner,” he said. “What we want is that all sides are involved and that this issue will be tackled in agreement between Saudi Arabia and Syria.”

He also stressed the need for quick action. “We are concerned that the situation will get more serious if things do not rally by Tuesday or Wednesday,” Mr Davutoglu said.

* Phil Sands reported from Damascus, Tom Seibert from Ankara

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