Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt speaks during a news conference as photographers take pictures of him at his residence in Beirut, 21 January 2011. (Reuters)
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt threw his weight behind Hezbollah on Friday, becoming a potential kingmaker in Lebanon's political crisis by giving the group an edge in deciding who will be the next premier.
"I hereby ... confirm my party's position by the side of Syria and the resistance (Hezbollah)," Jumblatt told reporters, referring to the Shia party who were once his arch foes.
His announcement marked a striking shift of alliance for a man who once staunchly backed Lebanon's embattled caretaker Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri against the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah.
Jumblatt, who later on Friday met with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, said his decision was aimed at preserving stability and avoiding sectarian conflict.
Hariri's Saudi- and US-backed coalition has 60 seats in the 128-seat parliament against 57 for the camp of Hezbollah, which has categorically rejected Hariri's bid to head a new government.
The Druze chieftain's bloc holds 11 deputies, including five Christians and a Sunni. If he clinches the backing of enough of his MPs, he would guarantee that Hezbollah and its allies could impose their own candidate for the premiership.
The resistance party, blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington, needs to secure the votes of eight deputies outside its alliance in order to prevail.
Hezbollah brought down Hariri's government last week in a dispute over a UN probe into the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, former premier Rafiq Al-Hariri.
In his remarks, Jumblatt accused the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon of seeking to sow discord in Lebanon, and warned the country stood at a critical juncture.
"The tribunal has turned into a tool of destruction and diverged from the path of justice to turn into a political bazaar, a bazaar of blackmail and counter-blackmail," he said.
He made clear that in a meeting last week he had agreed with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose country is steadily regaining the influence it long had in Lebanon, that the new government had to disavow the tribunal.
For months, Hezbollah has pressured Hariri to reject the tribunal, which it has dismissed as part of a US-Israeli plot.
Fear of unrest soared this week after the tribunal issued a sealed indictment in the case, which Hezbollah has said would include some of its members.
The tribunal on Friday announced it would hold a public hearing on 7 February to discuss pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen's questions to the appeals chamber.
In a sign that Lebanon's political battle was headed for a showdown, a defiant Hariri said on Thursday he would stand for another term despite calls by his rivals for him to quit.
But acting Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, a member of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement allied with Hezbollah, told AFP a new Hariri mandate was out of the question.
"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 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."
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.
On Monday, President Michel Sleiman is to begin consultations with parliamentary groups on appointing a new premier. Hezbollah and its allies are widely expected to nominate the veteran Omar Karameh, who has already served twice as premier.
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 Shia Muslim.