Lebanon: The next Gaza?

2011-01-23 19:56

Beirut - Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Sunday was to address the political crisis gripping Lebanon as rival parties prepared for a showdown on the choice of the country's next prime minister.

Nasrallah was to give a televised speech at 18:30 GMT on the developments, according to his Shi'ite militant party.

The address comes hours before President Michel Sleiman was due to kick off talks with parliamentary groups to appoint a new premier, after Hezbollah brought down the unity government of Saudi- and US-backed Saad Hariri.

But officials on Sunday said the talks, initially scheduled for last week, could again be postponed as regional leaders continue to seek a political settlement that would accommodate Lebanon's feuding camps.

Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria and blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington, has been locked in a months-long stand-off with Hariri over a UN-backed investigation into the 2005 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father.

Hariri's coalition has 60 seats in the 128-member parliament against 57 for the Hezbollah-led camp.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a former Hariri ally who defected to Hezbollah's side on Friday, has the remaining 11 seats.

The Shi'ite group needs to secure the backing of at least eight MPs outside its coalition in order to guarantee its Sunni Muslim candidate is appointed premier.

Hariri ruled out

Officials estimated the 128 votes were evenly divided at the weekend, with Jumblatt emerging as kingmaker, should he manage to clinch the backing of seven of his MPs.

But four deputies allied with Hariri and representing the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli on Sunday met to discuss whether to abstain from naming a premier, MP Najib Mikati's office told AFP.

The abstentions could tip the scale in favour of Hezbollah, giving way to a cabinet under the command of a premier chosen by the party, reported to be veteran politician and Tripoli native Omar Karameh.

Hariri has announced that he would stand for a second term although Hezbollah and its allies have categorically ruled out his reappointment.

The stand-off has sparked fears of a repeat of May 2008, when an 18-month government crisis culminated in Sunni-Shi'ite gunbattles that left close to 100 dead and brought the country to the brink of another civil war.

'The next Gaza'

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom on Sunday warned that a Hezbollah-led government would mark a "very, very dangerous" turn for Lebanon.

"We would, in fact, have an Iranian government on Israel's northern border," added Shalom, whose country fought a devastating 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Christian leader and former warlord Samir Geagea, an ally of Hariri, issued a similar warning, saying a government led by the Shi'ite group would turn Lebanon into "the next Gaza".

Hariri's government collapsed on January 12 when Hezbollah and its allies pulled 11 ministers from the cabinet in a dispute over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is probing the Hariri murder.

Nasrallah has said he expects the Netherlands-based tribunal, which he has dismissed as part of a US-Israeli conspiracy, will implicate Hezbollah members and has warned of grave repercussions.

Tensions soared further after the tribunal's prosecutor on January 17 submitted a confidential draft indictment to a pre-trial judge for review.

Saad Hariri at the weekend denied reports that, in a bid to end the crisis, he had signed a settlement with Syria and Hezbollah that included a clause stipulating Lebanon would end co-operation with the STL.

The premier met on Sunday with central bank governor Riad Salameh amid fears the crisis would have a negative impact on Lebanon's economy.