Former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel says an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is "non-negotiable." Mr. Gemayel told an audience in Washington Thursday that the creation of an international tribunal is essential to Lebanon's national security and the physical security of its politicians. From Washington, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

On Tuesday, the United Nations signed an agreement with Lebanon to create an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others nearly two years ago. But that agreement cannot be enforced until it is ratified by Lebanon's parliament, which has been paralyzed for months by a political crisis between pro-Western and pro-Syrian blocs.

Speaking to an audience at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Institute, former President Amin Gemayel said creation of a U.N. tribunal is essential. "This international tribunal is essential to preserve both Lebanon's national security and the physical security of Lebanese politicians. Without national security there is no sovereign state, and without physical security there is no democratic system. The U.N. tribunal can help preserve both, and is, therefore, non-negotiable," he said.

Since the Hariri assassination on February 14, 2005, the tiny Mediterranean country has been plagued by a wave of killings and attempted killings of high profile anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. The most recent victim was the former president's son, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, who was gunned down as he drove through a Beirut suburb in November.

Following his murder the country's political crisis deepened when supporters of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah -- which is both a political party and a militant group -- began a sit-in protest in central Beirut trying to force the collapse of the pro-Western government.

Clashes and sporadic fighting followed between opposing sides, pushing the country, which is home to 17 different religious groups, to the brink of sectarian conflict.

Mr. Gemayel said talks are going on within Lebanon as well as at high levels regionally to try to settle the escalating crisis, which has many fearing a return to the civil war that engulfed Lebanon from 1975 until 1990. "Although actions by the government's opponents have come dangerously close to inciting large-scale violent conflict, I am personally convinced that no major figure in Lebanon today wants a return to civil war," he said.

Mr. Gemayel said one solution to the political crisis would be to begin the process of political reform and have parliament elect a new president.

Lebanon's anti-Syrian bloc opposes current President Emile Lahoud, whose term in office expired two years ago, but it was extended for three years through Syrian intervention. President Lahoud has also found his name linked with the international investigation into Mr. Hariri's assassination and he has been a loud opponent of the proposed U.N. tribunal.

"There are also lots of elements that could lead to the incrimination of the president. That is why we can understand why President Lahoud is trying to block, to oppose, the procedure which would lead to the international tribunal. Now there is other means to go ahead and we hope that we will find the means to by-pass this obstruction," he said.

Former President Gemayel has been suggested as a potential replacement for President Lahoud. But when asked about his aspirations, he said it is more important right now to preserve the Lebanese republic than to speculate about who will be its next president.