Lebanese relieved as standoff ends; Hezbollah supporters celebrate
Hezbollah to get veto power in a new national gov't; Parliament speaker: Presidential elections this week.
BEIRUT - The wire coils and Lebanese soldiers are staying put for now. But Hezbollah-led opposition supporters - spurred by their triumph in a power struggle with the U.S.-backed government - hurried Wednesday to dismantle a protest tent camp set up more than a year ago in the heart of Beirut.
Two dozen young Hezbollah supporters unwrapped the militant group's yellow flag, depicting a fist clenching a Kalashnikov rifle, and danced the country's traditional foot-stomping Dabkeh dance. Some wore yellow Hezbollah caps while others waved banners of various opposition factions.
This is a new day for Lebanon and as you can see, everybody's happy and hopeful here, said Ahmed Hussein, 28, who was among the men dismantling the tents.
An agreement reached Wednesday in Doha, Qatar ended Lebanon's 18-month political stalemate and capped the worst internal fighting since the 1975-90 civil war. It gave the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies the key power they sought - a veto over any government decision.
The government side appeared to acknowledge it had largely caved in to the Shiite militant group's demands at the talks after Hezbollah demonstrated its military power on the streets. The clashes in Beirut, the central mountains and the north brought Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war and left at least 67 people dead.
After the deal was announced, the mood in Beirut was jubilant. Residents greeted each other with Mabrouk - Arabic for congratulations - and a few bursts of celebratory gunfire rang out in the capital.
Yet some saw it as only a short-term fix, not a long-term solution to Lebanon's fractures.
This doesn't mean there won't be political problems in the future, but at least there will be a break now, said Mohammed Ftouni, a 60-year-old taxi driver. It's just a shame this didn't happen before all those people were killed.
Opposition-allied Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who participated in the Doha talks, called the dismantling of the tent camp a gift from the opposition and hailed the agreement.
Soon after, pickup trucks began hauling mattresses and supplies from the encampment, which has paralyzed the commercial heart of the Lebanese capital for almost 18 months. Young men heaved carpets, wooden planks, file stacks, electric fans and even a fire-extinguisher onto a truck.
Workers took down tents, drab and dirty from months of sun and rain. City cleaners in green overalls ferried garbage away.
Clusters of white balloons were released from the city's main Martyrs Square in celebration, followed by an evening candlelit vigil. Pedestrians from across Beirut strolled in to watch.
Grocer Zein Labban, 35, said the Lebanese leaders had no choice but to agree in Doha because the country couldn't continue with the way things were. "We've turned a new page. Who does not want life to return to the heart of Beirut?"
At the presidential palace in the hilly suburb of Baabda, some 10 kilometers east of Beirut, workers mowed the lawn and cleaned the pavement in preparation for a new president to move in. Inside, they arranged curtains and placed Lebanese flags in reception halls.
Under the Doha deal, both sides agreed to vote in parliament to elect Gen. Michel Suleiman, the army chief. A session was scheduled for Sunday to give foreign dignitaries time to come to Lebanon for the celebrations.
Lebanon has been without a president since Emile Lahoud stepped down in November, and rival factions have been unable to resolve their differences over a future government. The parliament failed to meet 19 times to vote on Suleiman, the consensus presidential candidate.
Under the agreement - a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press - the opposition would get 11 seats in the Cabinet, while 16 seats would go to the parliamentary majority and the remaining three would be distributed by the elected president. Previously, the opposition held six seats in the Cabinet.
The government had sought a concession in Doha that Hezbollah would not again use its weapons internally as in fighting earlier this month. But only a broad clause, saying the signatories pledged to refrain from taking weapons to resolve political disputes - apparently referring to all Lebanese armed groups.