Lebanon rivals braced for showdown

2011-01-21 20:02

Beirut - Rival parties on Friday appeared headed for a showdown as each side hardened its position in Lebanon's political crisis after the failure of foreign mediation efforts.

Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Thursday set the tone for the battle ahead after defiantly saying he would stand for another term despite Hezbollah's campaign to discredit him.

"We will go to the parliamentary consultations organised by the president on Monday and I remain committed as a candidate, in line with my parliamentary bloc's decision," Hariri said.

The standoff pitting the Saudi- and Western-backed Hariri against the Iranian-and Syrian-backed Hezbollah is linked to a dispute over a UN tribunal probing the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, former premier Rafiq Hariri.


Turkey and Qatar this week abandoned efforts to break the deadlock, after Saudi Arabia also threw in the towel, raising fears of an escalation.

Set to play kingmaker in the dispute was Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a former key ally of Hariri who was expected to announce his allegiance to Hezbollah later on Friday.

The Druze chieftain has 11 deputies in parliament, including five Christians and a Sunni. If he garners the backing of enough MPs, he would guarantee Hezbollah and its allies can impose their candidate for the premiership.

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

The militant party, blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington, needs to secure the backing of eight deputies outside its alliance in order to come out the winner.

"It is clear that Jumblatt fears sectarian violence and has no other choice but to back Hezbollah," said one official close to his parliamentary bloc.

"We are hanging by a thread and maybe if Hezbollah has its way the situation won't escalate into violence," he added, requesting anonymity.

Acting Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, whose Christian Free Patriotic Movement is allied with Hezbollah, told AFP it was out of the question for Hariri to serve another term.

Unity government

"I can't tell you who will be premier but I can tell you who it definitely will not be - Hariri," Bassil said. "It is clear that we cannot go on with the same majority in the cabinet and the same premier."

He added that the Hezbollah-led alliance would nonetheless invite Hariri's coalition to join the new cabinet.

"We have no intention of sidelining anyone," Bassil said. "It is better, given the current situation, to form a unity government but with a different majority and a different premier."

But Ahmad Fatfat, an MP with Hariri's bloc, said his camp would not join a government led by the opposition.

"We are still confident we can garner the majority in parliament to nominate Hariri but in the event the other side manages to win, I don't believe we will take part in such a government," he said.


Hezbollah and its allies are widely expected to nominate veteran politician Omar Karameh, who has already served twice as premier, for the top government post.

According to Lebanon's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite Muslim.

Hezbollah last week brought down Hariri's unity government because of the dispute over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) set up in the wake of Rafiq Hariri's assassination.

Tension soared further after the Netherlands-based court earlier this week issued a sealed indictment in the case which Hezbollah has said will implicate party members.

President Michel Sleiman is to begin on Monday consultations with parliamentary groups on appointing a new premier.

The seemingly intractable political crisis has sparked fears of sectarian violence similar to that in May 2008, when fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites killed about 100 people and brought the country close to civil war.