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US shuttle diplomacy in Lebanon on hold but still alive

The United States effort to help mediate constitutional reform in Lebanon may be on hold until a new Lebanese president is elected later this summer. US diplomat April Glaspie gave Syrian officials and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel a reworked proposal for government power sharing early in May, informed officials say.

President Gemayel has told the US he will not respond until the Syrians and their Lebanese allies offer their comments. That response could come when Secretary of State George Shultz visits the region later this week to work on Arab-Israeli peace prospects. But fighting between Syria's Shiite ally, Amal, and the pro-Iranian Hizbullah has distracted attention from reform. And parliamentary deliberations for selecting a new president are due to start in late July.

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The indirect talks have focused on how to give the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament, a Shiite Muslim, greater say in government decisionmaking along with the Christian President. A separate issue has been an eventual shift from a system based on religious and ethnic identity to a secular form of government, which the Syrians especially favor.

There has been a good deal of progress since last fall, participants in the talks say. But Syrian President Hafez Assad is apparently still reluctant to sit down with all the parties to hammer out differences. Even if the two issues at the center of these talks are settled, sources add, it will only be the opening to an overall agreement, which would include an end to the fighting between Lebanon's factions, a departure of the 30,000 to 40,000 Syrian troops, a departure of Israeli and Iranian troops, and an agreement with Syria on the shape of future ``special'' bilateral relations with Lebanon.

The early May proposal was the first one drafted by the US since Washington became involved last August. Previously, US diplomats have acted as mailmen and facilitators between the Lebanese President and Syria and its Lebanese allies. The new proposal is only a small evolution in US approach, however. It is a redrafting of ideas previously on the table from both sides, participants say, rather than a bold new plan.

Gemayel is reportedly in general agreement with the proposal, though he has some reservations. He has told the US he will accept the proposal only as part of a broader settlement, Lebanese sources say. The powerful Christian Lebanese Forces are exerting pressure on Gemayel. They worry that an accord will legitimize Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. The President is himself reportedly concerned that Syria is just pocketing his concessions.

US officials say they will keep at the shuttle diplomacy as long as they are encouraged to do so by all sides. They are not predicting any quick breakthroughs, however, nor do they see this process as directly tied to the Middle East peace process. ``We'd be crazy to pin our peace process hopes on progress in Lebanon,'' sums up one well-placed official.

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