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Page last updated at 20:20 GMT, Sunday, 25 May 2008 21:20 UK

Q&A: Lebanon crisis deal

Rivals Amin Gemayel and Nabih Berri shake hands
Faction leaders put aside months of vicious rhetoric to reach a deal

Rival faction leaders have signed a deal to tackle outstanding disagreements between the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition which has the backing of Syria and Iran. The BBC's Martin Asser explains developments.

What does the deal involve?

Hezbollah, Lebanon's strongest armed group and main representative of the large Shia Muslim minority, had been insisting on a share of political power to reflect its importance in Lebanon's multi-confessional sectarian make-up.

It has secured a blocking minority in a new unity cabinet and changes in election laws that could mean it is better represented in its stronghold in southern Beirut.

The deal brokered by a Qatari-led committee of Arab states gives the government 16 seats in cabinet and the opposition 11 - more than enough for the one-third-plus-one-vote needed for a cabinet veto on government decisions. Three ministers will be appointed by the president.

The deal also tackles the issue of Hezbollah's weapons - a vital tool of resistance the group says, but a dangerous and destabilising factor according to its critics.

No armed group will be permitted to use weapons in any internal conflict - an important commitment after street fighting earlier in May that left 65 people dead.

Has the deal yielded any immediate political progress?

It paved the way for the election of army chief Michel Suleiman as president. The consensus candidate was finally elected after 19 previous parliamentary sessions were postponed because of the political impasse.

He fills an important constitutional position vacant since Emile Lahoud left office in November 2007.

Hezbollah and its allies, including Maronite Christian and Sunni Muslim elements, have ended their occupation of central Beirut that has brought life in the vibrant city centre almost to a standstill.

These are just the first steps, however, as Lebanon still faces fundamental problems which need to be solved.

What are the main obstacles ahead?

The new government must decide whether to co-operate with the court being set up by the UN to try suspects in the killing in 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The issue causes sharp division between the pro-Syrian opposition and the anti-Syrian bloc led by Mr Hariri's son, Saad, which blames Syria for his death and for subsequent assassinations.

A possible future peace deal with Israel could be a major bone of contention. Hezbollah revels in resisting militarily what it sees as an occupier and violator of Lebanese sovereignty. But Hezbollah is blamed by critics for provoking disastrous and unnecessarily confrontation with Israel.

The anti-Syrian bloc will be unlikely to drop its call for the disarmament of militias, in particular Hezbollah, as demanded by UN resolution 1559.

There is a great need to sort out relations with Syria - Lebanon's saviour after the 1975-90 civil war, but forced out by popular protests following Mr Hariri's assassination.

Lebanon's economy, with all the other challenges the country faces, has suffered terribly in the last three years and needs drastic treatment and an end to internal strife for it to recover.

Are there any winners or losers?

Clearly Hezbollah's military superiority and organisational strength has been reflected in important gains on the political front.

Now it needs to rebuild its reputation for sectarian and political magnanimity, established in the period after it drove the Israeli occupation out of southern Lebanon in 2000, but which it has lost in the aftermath of the 2006 war.

But the affront felt by government supporters after opposition militiamen took over the streets of west Beirut on 9 May could rankle for many years - it may be a scar that never heals.

Leaders of the governing bloc, strongly backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, are describing the deal as a victory for Lebanese unity, though they have come off second best.

The US has accepted the deal, but it remains to be seen how long it will tolerate the presence of Hezbollah, which it brands a terrorist organisation, in the government.

For the moment, unless the new accord quickly disintegrates, Qatar can boast about a major diplomatic success. Lebanon's fiendishly complicated history of conflict has confounded many efforts to find solutions before now.

Can the deal hold?

It is often said the leaders of Lebanon's various sectarian-dominated factions know well that they would lose more than they would gain in any new civil war.

Nervous Lebanese have been desperate for them to come back with a deal to end a frightening period that sometimes looked like the brink of civil war.

These factors may be what led the leaders to set aside the vicious accusations and searing rhetoric of recent months and sort out their current differences in a civilised way in Doha.

However, the new deal does not solve the fundamental questions of Lebanon's political system, which gives the presidency to a Maronite Christian and the premiership to a Sunni Muslim - despite the growing power of the Shia Muslim constituency.

Nor is it likely to remove that other bane of Lebanon's history - that it is the place where foreign powers - Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the US, and others - fight out their battles at the expense of the Lebanese.





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