Druze chief Walid Jumblatt apologises to Syrian president for insults

Lebanese leader who made harsh remarks after Hariri assassination to visit Damascus after saying outbursts were 'improper'.

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BEIRUT // The Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt has apologised for years of harsh rhetoric directed at the Syrian president Bashar Assad and has been welcomed to visit Damascus in the coming weeks, according to Hizbollah officials who brokered a deal between the two former enemies.

Mr Jumblatt expressed regret on Al Jazeera TV for a series of speeches and public statements over the past five years, in the wake of the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. In the speeches, Mr Jumblatt referred to the Syrian president alternatively as "a monkey", "a snake", "a crocodile", "an ape" and "a murderer". His comments were widely seen as an apology for being the most vocal and blunt opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon.

After the interview on Sunday, Hussein al Haj Hassan, a Hizbollah official, personally brokered a deal, whereby Mr Jumblatt would be welcomed to the Syrian capital for an end to the verbal hostilities that many feared could cost him his life. Mr Hassan went to Damascus on Sunday to meet Syrian officials to pave the way for a reconciliation between the two men, who were at odds long before Hariri's murder.

On Monday, Hizbollah's top official, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, announced that Syrian officials had given a green signal for Mr Jumblatt's visit to Damascus to meet Mr Assad. After Hariri's murder, almost a dozen critics of the Syrian regime were killed in Beirut in a series of bombings and shootings, widely believed to be part of Syria's heavy-handed Lebanon policy. Mr Jumblatt, who blames Damascus for the murder of his father for refusing to co-operate with Syria in 1977, was considered to be a target himself during that period.

In the interview, broadcast the day before March 14 - the date of a major anti-Syrian demonstration in 2005 later adopted as the name for a political coalition Mr Jumblatt helped form, and last June abandoned - he described his comments as rash and emotional. "I said, at a moment of anger, what is improper and illogical against President Bashar Assad. It was a moment of ultimate internal tension and division in Lebanon," Mr Jumblatt told Al Jazeera, adding that he hoped the easing of tensions would "open a new page".

As for the repeated accusation that President Assad's father had ordered the murder of Mr Jumblatt's father in 1977, he said that he no longer blamed the Syrian regime. "Following Kamal Jumblatt's departure, and for the sake of the national and Arab relationship between Lebanon and Syria, I went to President Hafez Assad 40 days later and shook his hand - I said in the past that I'm forgiving but not forgetting - today I say that I'm both forgiving and forgetting. I do not wish to bequeath hostility and hatred to the next generations in leading this house," Mr Jumblatt told the TV channel.

After Mr Nasrallah announced Syria's response to the interview, the Druze leader immediately credited Hizbollah's leadership with the breakthrough. Mr Jumblatt had spent the past six months discussing reconciliation with the Islamist movement, also a frequent target of his jibes for its close relationship to both Syria and Iran. "Sayed Nasrallah was the key mediator in this issue as he helped resolve the obstacles on my way to Damascus," Mr Jumblatt said in remarks published yesterday by the Lebanese daily An-Nahar.

"Most importantly, we must build a strong relationship between Lebanon and Syria based on the common factors," he told the newspaper. The easing of tensions between Mr Jumblatt and Mr Assad essentially marks the end of hostility towards the Syrian regime by mainstream Lebanese political factions after years of bitterness. The Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, recently visited Damascus and apologised to Mr Assad for a constant accusation for years that Syria was responsible for his father's murder.

Meanwhile, an international tribunal continues to investigate not only the killing of Hariri in 2005, but the mysterious murders of Syria's critics after the assassination. The tribunal is expected to declare the result of its five-year investigation later this year. mprothero@thenational.ae