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LEBANON: Backroom deals and checkbook diplomacy

May 25, 2008 | 11:42 am

Fireworks

In the conspiracy-minded Middle East, nothing is how it appears, especially when enemies suddenly put aside their differences and make a deal.

After six months without a president and more than a year-and-a-half without a properly functioning government, Lebanon today finally swore in a new head of state, President Michel Suleiman, and began the process of healing a rift which has cost scores of lives in sectarian and political violence over the last few weeks.

On the surface, the U.S.-backed government and the Iranian-backed opposition put aside their differences during talks in the Qatari capital of Doha and made a last-minute deal for the good of their nation.

But nobody really believes that.

On the streets of Beirut, a common view is that Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani stepped in as talks were about to collapse and whipped open his checkbook.

Most believe his intervention salvaged not only Lebanon but his tiny Persian Gulf state's fledgling attempt at high-stakes conflict resolution and international diplomacy.

Of course, there's no evidence of this whatsoever, but lots of rumors — someone who knows someone who was in the room in Doha said...

Still, some of Lebanon's politicians are notoriously corrupt, and Qatar has been more than generous in building influence in Lebanon by providing cash for reconstruction projects.

Why not a couple of million more for political reconcilation?

"It was an honor for Doha that the recent Lebanese agreement happened in a dialogue to which we were able to give all our help," the emir said in a speech before the Lebanese parliament.

There were also many hints of some sort of explicit or implicit backroom deals involving Iran, which is the primary patron of Hezbollah, and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which support the pro-government March 14 movement.

Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his Saudi counterpart Saud al Faisal even met discretely after Suleiman's swearing in ceremony, perhaps a sign of reconcilation after Faisal blamed Iran for Lebanon's recent turmoil.

Pro-U.S. Christian leader Samir Geagea said that Iran stepped in to pressure Hezbollah to take a deal to make Suleiman president, betraying its Christian ally Michel Aoun, a former army general army.

"In Doha, there were four calls from Mottaki to Hezbollah to accept the agreement, and they told Gen. Aoun that they are not able to reject it," he told reporters.

Many suspect that an overstretched American foreign policy team, overwhelmed by Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, buckled at the end, telling its allies to go ahead and give Hezbollah the veto power over government decisions it had sought as a precondition for allowing Suleiman to become president.

During his speech to parliament, speaker and opposition supporter Nabih Berri also made a strange comment that hinted at a quiet U.S. decision to give up on its ambitions for Lebanon.

"I would like to thank the United States," Berri told lawmakers, "especially since it became convinced that Lebanon is not the right place for the birth of its great Middle East project."

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Fireworks lit up the skies over Beirut hours after Michel Suleiman was sworn in as president. Credit: Delphine Minoui / For the Times

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