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Lebanon leaders to tackle core issues in Qatar

DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar’s emir formally opened talks on Friday between rival Lebanese leaders which aim to resolve a protracted political conflict that has pushed their country to the brink of a new civil war.

Two gunmen stand among Druze supporters of Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt as he delivers a speech in Baysour, during a tour of Druze villages May 16, 2008. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

“The task ahead of you is a great and difficult one,” Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani told government and opposition leaders who flew to Doha a day after Arab mediators reached a deal to end Lebanon’s worst internal fighting in nearly two decades.

The clashes killed 81 people and exacerbated sectarian tensions between Shi’ites loyal to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and Druze and Sunni followers of the ruling coalition.

Qatar invited the rivals to Doha for talks to end the political standoff that has paralyzed government for 18 months and left Lebanon without a president since November.

“We hope that we will finish what we have started. I’m optimistic,” said Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who together with Qatar’s prime minister helped broker the agreement which ended the fighting.

In a sign of the distrust which the talks must overcome, government and opposition leaders waited in separate halls for the brief opening session, which adjourned after Sheikh Hamad’s address. Substantive talks will begin on Saturday.

An influential member of the U.S-backed ruling coalition, which was dealt a military blow by Hezbollah in the fighting, said both sides must be flexible to avoid further bloodshed.

“Each one of us and them must offer concessions to bury strife,” Walid Jumblatt said before flying to Doha. “We are going to the dialogue with a great political wound.”

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Washington blames Syria and Iran for Hezbollah’s brief seizure of parts of Beirut last week which forced the government to rescind two decisions which had triggered the escalation.

Hezbollah, a political group with a powerful guerrilla army, had seen the government move to ban its communications network as a declaration of war.

In another concession, the ruling coalition also appears to have dropped its demands that the election of a new president precede discussions on a new cabinet and parliamentary election law -- the two main issues on the agenda of the Qatar talks.

“The atmosphere is excellent and we will put our efforts into reaching a solution which is in the interest of all Lebanese,” parliament speaker Nabih Berri, an opposition leader allied to Syria, told the Lebanese as-Safir newspaper.

The opposition has demanded more say in a cabinet controlled by factions opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Syria, which backs the opposition and is an ally of Iran, said it supported the Qatari-led Arab League initiative.

“This step could be a real chance to save Lebanon from the dangers that threaten it,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told as-Safir. “We are absolutely with the initiative.”

The anti-Damascus factions have long accused the opposition of seeking to restore Syrian domination that was ended in 2005 when Syria, under international pressure, withdrew its troops after the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

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Saudi Arabia, a strong backer of the ruling coalition, also stated its support for the deal. Riyadh said this week that Hezbollah’s campaign could affect Iran’s ties with Arab states.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, speaking in Riyadh, stressed the importance of all parties abiding by commitments not to use violence for political gain.

The ruling coalition’s refusal to yield to the opposition’s demand for veto power in cabinet triggered the resignation of all its Shi’ite ministers in November 2006. Lebanon was plunged into its worst political crisis since the civil war.

A deal would lead to the election of army commander General Michel Suleiman as president. Both sides have long accepted his nomination for a post reserved for a Maronite Christian in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

Under a deal, the opposition would also remove a protest camp that has closed off central Beirut since December 2006.

Writing by Dominic Evans and Tom Perry