Lebanon government on brink of collapse

AFP, Wednesday 12 Jan 2011

The Lebanese government is on the brink of collapse as Hezbollah and its allies threaten to withdraw from the National Unity government

(Photo: Ruters)

Lebanon's unity government looked set to collapse Wednesday after Hezbollah and its allies threatened to walk out over a UN probe into the assassination of former premier Rafiq Al-Hariri.

Health Minister Mohamad Jawad Khalifeh, whose Amal party is allied with Hezbollah, said 11 ministers would tender their resignations Wednesday afternoon unless a cabinet meeting is convened to discuss a long-running standoff over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

"If the cabinet fails to meet, it means there is no government and as such 11 ministers will tender their resignations this afternoon," Khalifeh said.

In response, Turkey and Saudi Arabia urged Lebanon Wednesday to keep its unity government.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned that the prospect of political instability posed "a great danger" for Lebanon and the region.

"If the resignations materialise, if there is a split... this may lead to a conflict... And this poses a great danger... Lebanon may face the problems it faced before and this will affect the countries in the region," he said through an interpreter.

"We wish that those resignations do not happen," he said, speaking at a joint news conference with Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu.

The Shia Hezbollah and its allies have for months been pressing Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, son of the slain former premier, to disavow the STL on grounds it is part of a US-Israeli plot.

Hezbollah's camp, which is backed by Iran and Syria, on Tuesday gave the Western-backed Hariri, who is in Washington, until Wednesday to convene a cabinet meeting on the tribunal.

According to unconfirmed press reports, the STL is set to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection with Rafiq Hariri's 2005 assassination, a scenario the militant party vehemently rejects.

Environment Minister Mohammad Rahhal, who is close to Hariri, said Hezbollah's threat to topple the government was aimed at paralysing the state and forcing the premier to disavow the tribunal.

"The scenarios put forth earlier were aimed at forcing Prime Minister Saad Hariri to reject the tribunal," Rahhal said. "When these scenarios failed, they declared political warfare on him today.

"They think that by piling the pressure on him, Hariri will bend but they are mistaken."

Lebanon's hard-won unity government is made up of 30 ministers, 10 of them representing Hezbollah and its allies.

In order for the government to collapse, Hezbollah needs to secure the backing of more than a third of the ministers. The identity of the 11th minister backing Hezbollah was unclear.

Ammar Houry, a member of Hariri's parliamentary majority, said there were no plans to convene a cabinet meeting before the premier's return from Washington.

Hariri on Wednesday was to meet with US President Barack Obama to discuss the political crisis.

"President Obama will meet with Prime Minister Saad Hariri to discuss US support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, and stability," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

The talks would also focus on "the ongoing work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and other regional issues," he said.

Obama also phoned Saudi King Abdullah in New York where the monarch is recovering from surgery and discussed Lebanon, a White House spokesman said.

Hariri has also held talks in recent days in New York with King Abdullah, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the crisis.

Syria and Saudi Arabia have for months been attempting to act as mediators in the crisis but their efforts have failed with each side accusing the other of refusing to compromise.

"Saad Hariri was on the brink of making a major concession as concerns the tribunal but occult forces prevented him from doing so," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt  said

The standoff between Hariri's camp and Hezbollah over the UN tribunal has paralysed the government for months and sparked concerns of sectarian violence similar to the one that brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.

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