BEIRUT (AFP) â€” Arab League chief Amr Musa, mediating a crisis between pro- and anti-Damascus forces in Lebanon, said Wednesday that Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud should serve out his term despite calls for him to go.
Musa also announced he would travel to Damascus for talks on Thursday and return the same day to Beirut. He hoped to be able “to announce a present for the Lebanese for the end-of-year festivities”, he told AFP.
Lahoud “should remain until the end of his mandate, and his term should be respected,” Musa told the media after meeting with the embattled president, who is under pressure from the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority to resign.
“The choice of his successor should then be made by consensus” among members of parliament, constitutionally charged with the election of the president.
Lahoud’s mandate was controversially extended by three years in September 2004 after parliament, under pressure from Lebanon’s then political master Syria, adopted a constitutional amendment to that effect.
His term expires next November.
Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon last year after nearly three decades, bowing to a public outcry following the murder in Beirut of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
That killing was widely blamed on Syria and its Lebanese allies, among them close aides to Lahoud. Damascus has denied any involvement, as has Lahoud.
Parliamentary elections followed, which produced an anti-Syrian majority that has been demanding Lahoud resign. The president, who is being boycotted by the West, has insisted he will remain in office until the end of his term.
Musa returned to Beirut on Tuesday for the third time in a month to launch a new bid to find a way out of the crisis, amid open-ended opposition protests calling for the Cabinet’s resignation since December 1.
Following his talks with Lahoud, he said “progress had been made regarding the international tribunal”.
He was referring to the proposal for a UN-led court to try those eventually charged with Hariri’s assassination. Disagreement over the court precipated the current crisis, when six pro-Syrian ministers resigned last month.
The Arab League chief stressed that “no problem is yet resolved,” but that he was encouraged by his contacts because “it appears that all sides want to reach a solution.” Musa also said that he had been “in contact” with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and that Iran would be sending a special envoy to Lebanon.
Speaking on Al-Arabiya television Wednesday, Mottaki confirmed that there had been contacts, and that Musa’s mission could lead to “an overall agreement” to resolve the Lebanon crisis.
“We recently had consultations with Mr Musa and an invitation to visit Tehran was extended to him to pursue these consultations,” said Mottaki, who also hinted at contacts in the coming days with Saudi officials.
Musa announced his shuttle mission between Beirut and Damascus following talks with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who on Wednesday won praise from US President George W. Bush.
Siniora has “shown tenacity, toughness in the face of enormous pressure from Syria as well as Hizbollah, which is funded by Iran”, Bush told a press conference in Washington.
Musa’s latest mission comes after the Hizbollah-led opposition at the weekend stepped up its campaign against Siniora’s rump Cabinet with a call for early parliamentary elections under a new electoral law.
Previously the opposition had merely been demanding that the Cabinet make way for a government of national unity.
The Arab League chief played down the likely impact on his talks of the latest opposition gambit. “The call for early elections from the opposition will not have negative repercussions,” he said.
The top-selling An-Nahar newspaper, however, warned that the opposition’s new demands were closing off any room for compromise.
“This opposition announcement amounts to an attempt to kill off the Musa mission,” it said.
In Cairo, meanwhile, Lebanon’s top Sunni cleric warned that the downfall of Siniora would lead to chaos and sectarian strife.
“There will be no other government in Lebanon and Lebanon will descend into chaos and sectarian strife if the Siniora’s government falls,” Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani said after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.Â