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Lebanese leaders gather; Hariri inquiry plan set

BEIRUT -- Lebanon's rival leaders agreed yesterday to let the government resolve the issue of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination, so that they can focus on other matters, such as the fate of the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, and the weapons of Hezbollah guerrillas.

The leaders, Muslim and Christian, pro- and anti-Damascus, came together for the first time, in an effort to overcome the country's deep divisions.

The United Nations is investigating a truck bombing last year that killed Hariri and 20 others, and the government has demanded an international tribunal to try the suspects. It also sought UN help in investigating the bombings that hit Lebanon since October, killing in all 33 people.

Many in Lebanon blame Damascus for the attacks, but it has denied any involvement.

Pro-Syrian factions, some of which are represented in the Lebanese Cabinet, objected to expanding the Hariri inquiry and to forming an international tribunal but the government voted for it anyway. The decision yesterday appears to settle the matter.

''It was unanimously decided that the decisions of the government pertaining to this and related issues . . . be followed up by the Lebanese government," said the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a pro-Syrian politician.

But the leaders may not bridge a gulf over other issues. Tough bargaining was expected over renewed calls by the anti-Syrian coalition for Lahoud's resignation and for Hezbollah, the guerrilla group fighting Israel, to disarm.

Those issues alone could derail the most serious attempt to reach a compromise solution to Lebanon's worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

About 35 key leaders and aides gathered in the first meeting of its kind since the end of nearly three decades of Syrian control, with Damascus' troop withdrawal last year following mass protests sparked by Hariri's assassination on Feb. 14, 2005.

Hariri's son and political heir, Saad, a Sunni Muslim who controls the largest parliamentary bloc; the Druze political leader, Walid Jumblatt; the Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah; Michel Aoun, a Christian who leads the parliamentary opposition; and a Christian leader, Samir Geagea, were among the participants. Nasrallah and Geagea met for the first time.

The only major politician who was not invited was Lahoud, who has rejected calls to step down.

''The atmosphere is not only serious, it's a positive one, despite the varying positions," Berri told reporters after the three-hour opening session.

''We are coming out of the meeting happy," Aoun said after the morning session.

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