BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government approved an international tribunal for suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, overriding the objections of Hezbollah amid a political crisis that threatens to spin Lebanon into violence.
Attempts to reach a last-minute compromise between the government and the pro-Syrian camp, led by Hezbollah, failed Saturday as the Cabinet moved forward with its meeting on the U.N-created court.
Lebanon’s Syria-allied president denounced the vote as did Hezbollah officials, who warned that the Shiite Muslim militant group would go ahead with threatened mass street protests seeking to force the government from power.
The tribunal is key in the struggle between allies and opponents of Syria, which dominated its neighbor for nearly three decades until international pressure forced it to withdraw its troops last year. Anti-Syrian forces, mainly Christians and Sunni Muslims, dominate parliament and the Cabinet, but are facing growing resistance from the mainly Shiite pro-Syrian camp. The political crisis became potentially explosive this week with the assassination of an anti-Syrian politician, raising worries of more violence that could tear apart the country apart long its fragile sectarian seams.
The anti-Syrian bloc brought out some 800,000 people for a rally at the funeral of the politician, Pierre Gemayel, on Thursday. Hezbollah has shown it can bring out similar numbers, and many people fear its threatened new demonstrations could start a spiral of street action.
Earlier Saturday, two key anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians met with Parliament Speaker Nabil Berri, an ally of Hezbollah and a Syria supporter, in an apparent attempt at a compromise.
U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fouad Saniora offered to put off the Cabinet vote for several days if six pro-Hezbollah ministers who quit the Cabinet earlier this month return. But with Hezbollah demanding that the government be changed to give it and its allies more power, the reconciliation bid failed, and the Cabinet meeting approved a U.N. draft for the tribunal.
“Unfortunately, no agreement was reached because each side stuck to its position,” Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said after the Cabinet meeting.
The Cabinet approval “puts the opposition before its options to confront the government. The time and the place will be decided,” Sheik Hassan Ezzeddine, a senior Hezbollah official, said after the vote when asked if Hezbollah would carry out its threat to try to topple Saniora with mass demonstrations.
In the eyes of Hezbollah, the approval of the tribunal amounted to a rejection of its demands for more seats on the Cabinet, and Saniora’s foes contend his administration is unconstitutional because it does not represent all of Lebanon’s main communities.
“The government represents part of the Lebanese people, not all of them. Its decisions are void,” Ezzeddine told Al-Arabiya television.
President Emile Lahoud also called the Cabinet’s approval of the tribunal “null and void” for the same reason, according to a statement from his office. Hezbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah charged the tribunal vote would “deepen divisions in the country,” and said the militant group would not take to the streets although he did not say when.
Saniora insisted the approval of the tribunal was not meant as a «provocation» against Hezbollah and its allies, according to a statement read by Aridi after the vote. “It is in fact based on Lebanese unanimity on the creation of this tribunal and the Lebanese who are yearning to protect Lebanon, bolster its democratic freedoms and national security and bring it out of the cycle of killings and assassinations,” the statement said. Aridi underlined the government’s “respect” for Hezbollah’s opinion and would allow nonviolent protests led by the group, but added: “We will not give up our goals.” For opponents of Syria, the court is a major priority, and they hope it will uncover the truth behind the February 2005 assassination of Hariri in a bomb blast that killed 22 others, which they accuse Damascus of orchestrating. Syria has denied any role in the killing.
The court, which will sit outside Lebanon and have a majority of non-Lebanese judges, is to try four Lebanese generals, top pro-Syrian security chiefs under Lahoud, including his Presidential Guard commander, who have been under arrest for 14 months accused of involvement in Hariri’s murder.
The U.N. investigation into Hariri’s death has also implicated Brig. Gen. Assaf Shawkat, Syria’s military intelligence chief and the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Shawkat is not in custody. Hariri’s death was the first in a string of attacks that killed five other prominent anti-Syrian figures, with Gemayel the most recent, in a bold daytime shooting Tuesday. Many Lebanese blame Syria for all the killings, which Damascus denies.
Since Gemayel’s assassination, some ministers in Saniora’s Cabinet have moved into the heavily guarded prime minister’s building in downtown Beirut, fearing more slayings.