Hariri to seek protection for Lebanon on U.S. visit

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri will visit Washington next week for talks with senior U.S. officials in the latest of his regional and foreign trips aimed at shielding Lebanon from the repercussions of regional turmoil, political sources said Wednesday.

The sources did not give further details, but media reports said Secretary of State John Kerry is among senior U.S. officials Hariri will meet during his visit to Washington.

Hariri paid a short visit to Doha Monday during which he held talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani centering on the latest developments in the region, especially the Saudi-led airstrikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Last month, the head of the Future Movement held talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on visits aimed at reaffirming support for moderation in the face of Islamist extremism roiling the Middle East.

Hariri’s political activity comes amid soaring tensions at home between his Future Movement and Hezbollah, fueled by a bitter war of words over operation “Decisive Storm” launched by Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition of Arab countries on March 26 against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who overran the capital Sanaa in September and have expanded to other parts of Yemen.

While Hariri has vehemently supported the Saudi military intervention in Yemen, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has denounced Riyadh for spearheading the offensive and accused it of launching the war in an attempt to regain control over the impoverished Gulf country.

Nasrallah’s remarks drew a quick rebuke from Hariri and the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Saeed Asiri, who said that the Hezbollah chief’s comments contained false allegations and reflected the confusion of his patron, Iran.

Despite the escalating media campaigns, senior officials from the Future Movement and Hezbollah met Tuesday at Speaker Nabih Berri’s Ain al-Tineh residence in the 10th round of their dialogue designed to defuse sectarian tensions, aggravated by the wars in Yemen and Syria.

Future MP Ammar Houri said the dialogue with Hezbollah has greatly reduced sectarian tensions in the country.

“The situation in the country would have been worse had it not been for the ongoing dialogue between Hezbollah and the Future Movement. This dialogue has succeeded in greatly defusing tensions,” Houri told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.

Nasrallah is scheduled to address a Hezbollah rally in Beirut’s southern suburbs Friday to show solidarity with the Yemeni people against the military intervention.

While upholding his strong support for the Future-Hezbollah talks, Berri called Wednesday for a dialogue among Arab countries, saying Lebanon was ready to host peace talks among the warring factions in Yemen.

“Dialogue has become a dire need, more than at any time before, at regional and Arab levels to avoid further escalation of the situation and wars, especially with regard to Yemen, since all the parties concerned with this crisis have called for a dialogue,” Berri was quoted as saying by MPs during his weekly meeting with lawmakers at his residence.

Berri, according to the MPs, said Lebanon was ready to host reconciliation talks between the rival factions in Yemen to end the conflict there.

“If the problem lies in the venue of holding this dialogue, there are several options, including the Sultanate of Oman and Algeria. We are even in Lebanon ready to facilitate this matter and host this dialogue,” Berri was quoted as saying.

“Experience has proved that solutions can only be reached politically and through dialogue,” he added.

Berri also voiced hope for the release of Lebanese servicemen held hostage by the Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate.

“There is a big possibility that [Lebanese] military personnel being held hostage by the Nusra Front will be released soon,” the speaker was quoted as saying.

Berri’s comments come after General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim returned from talks with Turkish and Qatari mediators in Turkey this week. Signs suggested an agreement in the works for the hostage crisis could see the imminent release of all 16 servicemen held by the Nusra Front.

Berri also said he would chair a meeting of Parliament’s Secretariat Monday to decide the agenda for an upcoming Parliament legislative session to act on a raft of draft laws.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah kept up its media campaign against Saudi Arabia over the military intervention in Yemen, ignoring Berri’s plea for the two rival influential parties to tone down their rhetoric.“The Future Movement’s links to the Saudi leadership and its attempts to please it and defend it will not make us keep silent on an aggression of this magnitude against a brotherly Muslim Arab people being subjected to this kind of crimes,” Hezbollah said in a statement. It added that the regime in Saudi Arabia could not be compared to Iran, “whose progress and development as a state and as a political system” has been seen by the world.

Hezbollah was apparently responding to Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who lashed out at Iranian leaders by saying operation “Decisive Storm” was designed to liberate the Arab world from “Iranian domination.”

Machnouk said Tuesday that he who resorted to elimination, aggression and hijacking the wills of people would actually be humiliated. He was indirectly responding to a speech made by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, last week in which he said that Saudi Arabia would be humiliated and would not emerge victorious in Yemen.

Separately, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea renewed his call on lawmakers to go to Parliament to elect a new president as the presidential vacuum has entered its 11th month with no solution in sight.

“There can be no state without a head. The solution is very simple and that is for [lawmakers] to go to Parliament to elect a president,” Geagea said during an LF ceremony Tuesday night. “We might get an ideal president whom we want and probably the opposite. But eventually, it’s better to have a state with a president rather than wait for a president who might come or might not come at all.” Geagea also called for the creation of an “e-government” as an answer to the country’s notoriously inefficient and corrupt public sector.

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