Opposition MP questions Lebanon vote

A leading Lebanese opposition figure, Walid Jumblatt, has said it will be difficult to ensure fair elections in May because the country, in his opinion, is a police state in the grip of Syria.

    Jumblatt wields considerable influence among Lebanese Druze

    On Thursday Jumblatt called on Syria - which has 14,000 troops in its tiny neighbour - 

    to leave, a central demand of the disparate opposition movement which is gaining

    momentum ahead of the vote.

    "That's the basic issue, to dismantle Syrian and Lebanese security intelligence, which

    is controlling all aspects of public life," the Druze chief and former militia leader said.

    "We have to try to block it, to try to have fair elections, but in a police state it's not

    so easy."

    Jumblatt wields considerable influence in Lebanon and among
    the large Druze community, a secretive sect that emerged about 1000 years ago as an offshoot of Islam.

    He said the power of the international and Lebanese press, unusually vibrant for the

    Arab world, and removing "Soviet, draconian laws" would be the main ways to thwart

    Syria's grip.

    Hotly contested

    The election is likely to be the most hotly contested since the end of the 1975-90

    civil war, with Syria a central issue.

    Many Lebanese say Jumblatt has changed tack by supporting a US-backed United

    Nations resolution calling for Syrian troops to leave and Hizb Allah guerrillas to


    The current Lebanese cabinet is a
    firm backer of Syrian presence

    He said he had no objection where resolution 1559 aimed to deliver an independent

    Lebanon, but that the withdrawal should be gradual, in line with the Taif agreement

    that ended the war.

    "We would like the Syrians to get out, but we don't want to  humiliate the Syrians

    and we will be staying, as Lebanese and Syrians, good neighbours," he said.

    In Damascus, a senior UN envoy said he had held highly encouraging talks on

    Thursday with the Syrian president about a UN resolution calling on Syrian troops to

    leave Lebanon.

    Jumblatt said the Hizb Allah fighters, whom Washington calls terrorists, did a

    good job in driving out Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year


    Broader legitimacy

    Dialogue was now needed to transform the group into a purely political party, Jumblatt


    He added that Hizb Allah should disarm, "but only after we've liberated the Shebaa Farms" - an

    Israeli-occupied border area.

    Druze MP Marwan Hamadah (R)
    escaped a bid on life in October

    An erstwhile ally of Syria, Jumblatt's status has grown since he lent his weight to

    opponents of Syria's occupation, who were until a few months ago mainly Christian


    With the less outspoken Sunni former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri also on board,

    their calls have gained broader legitimacy in the country of about 18 religious groups.

    But Syria's supporters, including the Lebanese government, have fought back.

    Lebanon's Baath Party filed a lawsuit this week against Jumblatt after he accused the party

    , which has ruled Syria for decades, of assassinating his father Kamal

    Jumblatt during the Lebanese war.

    Courage to defy

    Jumblatt said he intended to fight the lawsuit.

    He said a car bomb intended to kill one of his allies, Druze MP Marwan Hamadah, last

    October had encouraged him to speak out.

    "This crime committed against Marwan and the killing of his bodyguard will encourage

    me more to say 'yes' to a free Lebanon and 'no' to a satellite Lebanon," Jumblatt


    "It took me some time to have the courage to defy them. Now I'm free."

    SOURCE: Reuters


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