Middle East

Lebanon's Siniora Optimistic on Solution to Crisis

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Lebanon's prime minister says an agreement is close for ending a deepening political crisis. The government of Fuad Saniora is facing open-ended street protests. The Hezbollah-led opposition has staged the demonstrations to pressure Siniora to resign.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Lebanon's prime minister tells NPR that an agreement is within reach to end a political crisis that has brought thousands of Lebanese protesters into the streets of Beirut. Government opponents, led by the Islamist group Hezbollah, are demanding more say in the country's decisions. An Arab League envoy has been mediating between the two sides.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports Prime Minister Fouad Siniora says that an agreement is close.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

AMOS: The prime minister's office is in the heart of downtown Beirut, but getting there these days is a difficult journey. First, a walk to the tent city where thousands of anti-government protesters has staged an open-ended sleep in. Then, past shuddered shops. And finally, through the razor wire fence surrounding the government building known as the Grand Saray, a refurbished Ottoman-style palace.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a banker by training, works here. For security reasons, he's also been spending nights here. In a few hours, the chants death to America and the calls for Siniora's resignation will begin again.

Mr. FOUAD SINIORA (Prime Minister, Lebanon) : Hi.

AMOS: Hello, Mr. prime minister.

Mr. SINIORA: How are you?

AMOS: For now, it's quiet. Siniora can joke about his predicament, a prime minister in a spotless business suit living in his office.

Mr. SINIORA: Oh yes, I'm clean. Let met tell you. I mean, frankly, I have a high degree of serenity.

AMOS: But Siniora is the target of the protests. The fury stoked by Hezbollah Shiite Muslims and an allied Christian faction. The insults have been flying. Hezbollah charges Siniora's government is in the pocket of the Americans. Siniora's allies say Hezbollah is a front for Syria and Iran. But Siniora says expressing opinions is no threat.

Mr. SINIORA: I'm quite determined to give them the ability to express their views, to demonstrate and so on, although I drew their attention to the fact that it is not the way how to really deal with issues.

AMOS: The Arab League has stepped in to deal with the issues. An envoy persuaded Hezbollah to call off threatened escalation of the protests on the street. Now a third round of mediation begins. Siniora seems confident a solution is close.

Mr. SINIORA: It depends upon what he is carrying. But really I've expressed our complete support for his initiatives.

AMOS: Siniora says he's offered Hezbollah a stronger voice in government and expanded cabinet, but without authority to veto government decisions, also a Hezbollah demand.

Mr. SINIORA: What did we offer? We said we are ready to accept your participation. We believe that we want to embrace and we want to come to results, but we don't want to obstruct.

AMOS: It is a recognition of Hezbollah's rising power in Lebanon's conflict sectarian landscape. But Siniora and his allies have power too. They won a majority of votes in the last election. They're key demand is for an international tribunal to examine the murder of a former prime minister and the assassination of more than a dozen others in the last year. So far, Hezbollah has blocked approval. The international tribunal is, by all means, is a major factor for us to approve, for them to obstruct.

AMOS: The Bush administration backs the international tribunal, but when it comes to support for the beleaguered Lebanese government, Siniora says Washington has not done enough. Not kept promises made to strengthen him after this summer's destructive war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Mr. SINIORA: The support that should really come basically in the form of putting pressure on Israel to withdraw. Israel is still occupying part of our country, the Shebaa farms. It is still over flying over Lebanon. It hasn't given us the maps of the landmines that they planted in the country and they are still keeping detainees. So the situation continues.

AMOS: As he begins another round of talks, Siniora steers the conversation to matters beyond Lebanon. The core of the region's problems, he says, remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. SINIORA: Every progress that you can make regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, you will feel it immediately in Iraq, and in the Afghanistan, and in here also. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the mother of most problems in the region.

AMOS: Prime Minister Siniora believes he can survive the current crisis. But with no larger settlement, the crises in the region are likely to play out in Lebanon for some time to come.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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