Lebanese cabinet to meet amid rising political tensions

Ahram Online, Sunday 12 Dec 2010

A Lebanese cabinet meeting is set to convene on Wednesday for the first time in a month, amid a heated anti-STL campaign by Hezbollah and fears of sectarian strife in the wake of an indictment

Hezbollah troops

With reports of a possible Lebanese government session due to convene on Wednesday, Hezbollah again stepped up its campaign against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), investigating the 2005 assassination of late premier Rafiq Al-Hariri, and the probe's supporters.

The cabinet has not met since its 10 November session, during which the discussion of the "false witnesses" controversy was postponed to avoid a divisive vote.

According to local reports, the 14 March alliance does not object to discussing the issue of false witnesses as long as there is no vote on the issue and other issues are also discussed.

The meeting, which will take place in the Presidential palace of Baabda, will be headed by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who has lately been working to draft a compromise agreement.

8 March politicians have called on the cabinet to ask the Judicial Council to investigate the issue surrounding witnesses who gave unreliable testimonies to the international probe. However, 14 March figures have said that the regular judiciary should handle the matter.

In one of its most vocal warnings, Hezbollah demanded that the government end its financial backing of the international tribunal as a precondition for the Shia group's continued presence in the government. Hariri, however, has refused, and the issue will be revisited on Wednesday.

The case of Defence Minister Elias Murr will also be discussed during the meeting. Diplomatic cables released on WikiLeaks suggest that Murr provided the US government with information on Hezbollah sites, facilitating Israeli strikes on these locations. According to the two-year-old document, citing a conversation held with US diplomats over lunch, he demanded that the Israelis avoid hitting Christian sites.

Murr apparently also instructed the Lebanese army to refrain from joining the fighting but instead to make do with civil defence operations. The defence minister's alleged plan was for the army to stay out of the fighting and, following a Hezbollah defeat at the hands of Israel, to take over the areas controlled by the Shia group.

At the time of the 2008 meeting, Suleiman was army's chief of staff, and he was ordered by Murr not to interfere if Israel attacked.

Hezbollah politburo member Mahmoud Qmati said today: "When we say that the issuance of the indictment might cause unrest, this does not mean that we are plotting a coup. There is no force on earth that can weaken or besiege the Resistance."

Meanwhile, in the most outright warning to the government, former minister Wiam Wahhab a staunch ally of Syria and Hezbollah told New TV on Saturday that Prime Minister Saad Hariri will not maintain his leadership position much longer if he continues to support the STL.

Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem said Saturday that the STL is being controlled by Israel and the US, National News Agency (NNA) reported. "The STL lacks the minimum standards of justice and credibility…What it caused in the past five years shows that the tribunal has deviated from its course of justice. It therefore serves intelligence bodies… and is targeted against the Resistance"

"According to us, the tribunal does not exist," Qassem said, adding that it does not have authority over Lebanon or its politics.

The 8 March coalition has lately exerted tremendous effort to forge a deal prior to the issuance of the indictment. Hariri's shuttle diplomacy between Syria, Saudi Arabia and France has primarily been centred on reaching a settlement that could save Lebanon from the nightmare which would likely follow an STL condemnation.

The Pro-Syrian Al-Akhbar newspaper reported earlier this month that Hezbollah has prepared a plan to take over Lebanon when the STL makes its accusations. Some leaders are concerned that should the court indict Hezbollah members, Shia-Sunni strife would quickly ensue.

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