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By Edward Yeranian
Beirut
15 December 2007

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch arrived in Beirut Saturday for talks with top political and religious leaders, in an apparent bid to jumpstart a presidential election scheduled in parliament for Monday. Edward Yeranian reports.

David Welch's surprise visit to Beirut has political leaders and analysts wondering if Lebanon's parliament is finally ready to elect a new president on Monday, or if feuding political leaders are still unwilling to compromise.

David Welch, left, gestures as he speaks with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, at his house in Beirut, Lebanon, 15 Dec. 2007
David Welch, left, gestures as he speaks with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, at his house in Beirut, Lebanon, 15 Dec. 2007

Lebanon has been without a president since November 24 and eight previous attempts by parliament to elect a president have been blocked by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah-led opposition.

Secretary Welch met with Lebanon's Maronite Christian Patriarch Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Butros Sfeir during the first leg of his mission. He is also expected to meet face-to-face with leaders of both the pro-Western March 14th ruling coalition and the pro-Syrian March 8th alliance.

Speaking to reporters, Welch urged members of parliament to get down to business on Monday and do their duty in electing a new president:

"It's the belief of the United States that it's time now for Lebanon to elect its next president," he said.  "This will restore dignity and respect to the most important Christian office in this land.  It is time, in our judgment, for all the members of parliament to fulfill their duty and go to the parliament and vote."

Welch has apparently picked up the mantle of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose repeated visits to Beirut and persistant mediation efforts between warring politicians, in recent weeks, ultimately failed to achieve results.

Analyst Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center says the United States might also find diplomacy difficult. He says there is a strong backlash against the United States among the pro-Western March 14th forces, over the perception that Washington has abandoned them.

"But all of this has created a sense here in Lebanon and Syria that maybe the US is doing what it did in 1984, which is kind of dramatically switch course, dramatically abandon ship and a sense that maybe they are in the process of or have already made a deal with Syria, sort of re-acknowledging Syria's role in the region, Syria's role in Lebanon, and this has caused a collapse of confidence in the March 14th group and an explosion of confidence in the March 8 group, and Syria," he said.

General Michel Aoun, a pillar of the Hezbollah-led March 8th alliance said last week that all future negotiations must go through him, and that any agreement to elect a president must be a package deal that he agrees to.

Members of the March 14th governing coalition complain that Syria is pulling the strings and is using General Aoun to block the election to achieve its political goals.

Lebanese military army soldiers carry the coffins of slain Maj. Gen. Francois Hajj and his bodyguard Kheirallah Hewan, in Beirut, 14 Dec 2007
Lebanese military army soldiers carry the coffins of slain Maj. Gen. Francois Hajj and his bodyguard Kheirallah Hewan, in Beirut, 14 Dec 2007

Both of Lebanon's two main political factions have agreed to nominate Army Commander General Michel Sulieman as the country's next president, but details over a new government and top political nominations have brought the election process to a standstill.

The assassination Wednesday of Brigadier General Francois al Hajj, who was widely expected to be the next Lebanese Army chief, has brought more turmoil to Lebanon's already precarious political climate.

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