French President Nicholas Sarkozy became the first Western leader to visit Lebanon since the election of the country's new president, Michel Suleiman, two weeks ago, putting an end to months of political crisis, as Edward Yeranian reports for VOA from Beirut:
A Lebanese Army band played the French national anthem, while an honor guard gave a 21-gun salute to French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who is on a one-day visit aimed at promoting national unity in the country following a deadly political crisis.
The country's pro-Western ruling party recently agreed to form a national unity government with the Hezbollah-backed opposition. The agreement calls for a 30-member Cabinet that gives Hezbollah veto power over government decisions.
Mr. Sarkozy told the gathering of Lebanon's political leaders that it was time for reconciliation, and time to move forward:
There has been too much suffering in Lebanon, too many catastrophes and too many people have died, he says. But now is the time to look to the future, a future that must be one of dialogue, where every Lebanese will be represented.
Mr. Sarkozy went on to say that the agreement in Doha, Qatar, was a major accomplishment which "improved the situation," but that "all sides must now implement their commitments through dialogue."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was also part of the French delegation. Kouchner tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a deal to end Lebanon's lengthy political crisis, last December, but was unsuccessful.
The pro-Syrian Hezbollah took control of parts of Beirut, last month, in a show of force which ultimately ended in a political agreement allowing the election of Army Commander Michel Suleiman as president, and giving Hezbollah a minority veto inside the next Lebanese government.
Lebanon's last President, Emile Lahoud, ended his term on November 24 without the election of a successor, and the legitimacy of acting Prime Minister Fouad Saniora was contested by Hezbollah.
Paul Salem, Director of the Carnegie Center for the Middle East, thinks that France has increased its' prestige in the region with Sarkozy's initiative, which includes improving ties with Syria, as well:
"Sarkozy after having failed in the initial mediating attempts, where France was trying to really get in and regain a role with Syria and Lebanon, last year… in the end, Qatar was able to pull the rabbit out of the hat," said Salem. "But it's interesting that the French president, despite that is now reviving France's interest, France's activity, here, with a very high delegation. Obviously, a lot of it is very straight-forward - support for the new president, support for the new government, and the new status quo in Lebanon - and it is being coupled with an enthusiasm for Syria, and trying to encourage Syria to go along the path of sort of normalization of relations with Lebanon, the idea of opening an embassy, as well as encouraging the Syrian move towards Turkey towards contemplating peace with Israel."
The Arab daily Asharqalawsat reported last week that France has invited Syrian President Bashar al Assad to visit Paris, in July, after his cooperation in facilitating the recent Doha agreement.
Syria was the former top power broker in Lebanon, before it withdrew its troops from the country after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri in 2005. Many of Lebanon's top leaders accuse Syria of playing a role in the killing, something Damascus has consistently denied.