Rival leaders meet in Beirut

The secretary general of Hizbollah met with the leader of the Future Movement in southern Beirut on Sunday night.

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BEIRUT// In a long-awaited meeting designed to dampen Lebanon's fractious sectarian tensions, Sheikh Sayid Hasan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hizbollah, met with his top political foe, Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, in a secret location in southern Beirut on Sunday night.

The Hizbollah-led opposition - which is dominated by Lebanon's large Shiite population - has been at odds for more than three years with a coalition of Sunni, Christians and Druze aligned with the West over the direction of Lebanon and the right of Hizbollah to continue unilateral armed resistance to Israel. The political and sectarian tensions were first exacerbated by the July 2006 war with Israel, which many Lebanese considered was provoked by Hizbollah at the cost of more than 1,000 civilian lives and billions of dollars in damage. Hizbollah responded with a political drive to remove the Sunni-dominated government from power that eventually turned bloody in May. A Qatari-led effort stopped the widespread violence that killed more than 60 people.

As the smoke from a series of street battles cleared, little doubt was left that Hizbollah could militarily control Lebanon, forcing the government to agree to a power-sharing arrangement that installed Michel Suleiman, the current president, into office as a national unity leader with no clear ties to either side. The Future Movement press office said the meeting was held in an undisclosed, secure location in the Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs because of threats against Sheikh Nasrallah by both Israel and Sunni extremists. One Future Movement official said the meeting stressed the need to continue to implement the Qatari agreement, preventing street-level tensions from sparking violence and continuing communication between both sides.

Mustafa Aloush, a Sunni MP and a Hariri supporter, described the meeting as "aiming to support other initiatives taken a while ago", including the removal of "political posters and slogans from the streets in order to prevent tension from the streets between Lebanese people". Mr Aloush said the meeting succeeded in opening dialogue between the two bitter rivals, but he called upon Hizbollah to see itself as part of a Lebanese state and not a religious movement tied to an Iranian agenda.

"I think Hizbollah should come closer to the concept of a united Lebanese state and be under the Lebanese state and governmental institutions," he said. "The ball is in Hizbollah's field now to prove that they want to be a partner. By proving they are, then they can fix the mistakes of the past. Therefore people might be able to trust them and deal with them as an equal partner, but not a militant group."

Representatives from Hizbollah could not be reached for comment, but al Manar television station, which often speaks for the group, described the meeting in positive words and showed television footage of the two men meeting together, apparently cordially. "There was an affirmation of national unity and civil peace and the need to take all measures to prevent tension. And to reinforce dialogue and to avoid strife regardless of political differences," a statement issued by both sides said, according to Reuters.