Hussein Abdallah
The Daily Star
October 6, 2008 - 8:00pm

Lebanon and the United States set up a joint commission on Monday charged with organizing their bilateral military relationship. The commission was set up after a meeting on Monday between Defense Minister Elias Murr and US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Mary Beth Long, who arrived in Beirut late on Sunday.

In a related development, a joint statement by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the US Embassy said that Beirut and Washington had signed three military contracts worth $63 million in US grants to the LAF.

The grants are aimed at providing the LAF with secure communications, ammunition and infantry weapons.

Also on Monday, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Hale continued his visits to Lebanese politicians as he met with former President Amin Gemayel at the Phalange Party headquarters in Beirut.

Hale, who was accompanied by US Ambassador Michele Sison, told reporters after meeting Gemayel and attending the Phalange Party's weekly meeting that the US supported national dialogue among Lebanon's rival political parties.

Hale added that next year's parliamentary elections represented a chance for the Lebanese people to "choose their representatives freely."

He also met over the weekend with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and other politicians.

In response to the series of meetings, senior Hizbullah official Nawaf al-Moussawi told Al-Manar television on Monday that the visits by Hale and Long aimed at "reassuring the United States' allies in Lebanon."

In a separate development on Monday, President Michel Sleiman, who is expected to head to Jeddah on Sunday to meet Saudi King Abdullah, said that national dialogue among rival Lebanese leaders would necessarily lead to an agreement over a unified defense strategy for Lebanon.

Speaking to a delegation of Irish legislators who visited him at the Presidential Palace, Sleiman stressed the need to find a solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

"The perfect solution is recognizing the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland," a Presidential Palace statement quoted Sleiman as telling the delegation.

National talks aimed at agreeing on a defense strategy for Lebanon were kicked off on September 16 grouping the 14 politicians who signed the Doha Agreement last May.

The first session of talks was held at the Baabda Palace and was chaired by Sleiman. The second round is scheduled to take place on November 5.

Reaching an agreement on a national defense strategy has become a pressing issue following armed clashes last May between Hizbullah-led fighters and pro-government gunmen.

The fighting led to Hizbullah's briefly taking over large swathes of pre-dominantly Sunni western Beirut, a stronghold of Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri.

Amid the preparations to hold the second round of dialogue, efforts to reconcile Christian leaders have recently gained steam in light of a reconciliation initiative led by the Maronite League.

The reconciliation will likely kick off with a meeting between Geagea and Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh at the Presidential Palace under the auspices of Sleiman.

Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra told Voice of Lebanon radio station on Monday that the meeting was likely to take place in the "coming few days."

Marada spokesman Suleiman Franjieh (a relative of the Marada leader) also told the radio station on Monday that the meeting was in the offing provided that Franjieh's conditions were met. Marada insists that Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun should attend the Geagea-Franjieh reconciliation meeting, but the LF is unlikely to accept Aoun's attendance if the meeting is not part of a broader Christian gathering that includes other leaders.

Aoun told reporters after a meeting of his Change and Reform bloc on Monday that "bad intentions" were behind objections to his presence at the reconciliation meeting.

Aoun added that he was not planning to boycott upcoming dialogue sessions, although he might "sit and watch" the other leaders talk.

He also warned of the "fragile" security situation in the North and said some extremist cells were active in the area with aim of creating instability.


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