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Lebanon in turmoil as caretaker govt steps in - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Hezbollah Flags flutter in Beirut. (AFP)

Hezbollah Flags flutter in Beirut. (AFP)

BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon’s president prepared Thursday to tackle the politically delicate task of naming a new premier after Hezbollah forced the collapse of the unity government, plunging the country back into crisis.

President Michel Sleiman called on the government to continue in a caretaker capacity and said he would on Monday launch consultations with parliamentary groups on appointing a new premier, who must be a Sunni Muslim in line with tradition.

In a sweep led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, 11 ministers withdrew from Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government on Wednesday evening, providing the minimum number of resignations to automatically dissolve the 30-member cabinet.

The move was linked to a long-running dispute over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is reportedly set to indict high-ranking Hezbollah operatives in the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father.

The resignations of the 11 ministers came after Saudi Arabia and Syria failed in their bid to defuse tensions over the tribunal and find a compromise between the two rival camps.

For months, Hezbollah has been pressing Hariri to disavow the Netherlands-based court, which is reportedly set to indict senior members of the militant party.

The group has accused the tribunal of being part of a US-Israeli plot and has warned of grave repercussions should any of its members be implicated by the court.

Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from the government, formed in November 2009, at the exact moment Hariri was in Washington holding talks with US President Barack Obama on the crisis.

The 40-year-old Hariri has not commented on the walkout and was to meet later on Thursday in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

He was also expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Friday.

Analysts said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who holds 11 seats in the 128-member parliament, could play a key role in the formation of the new government depending on which camp he sides with.

Hariri’s pro-Western coalition has 60 seats and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies have 57.

Jumblatt has been allied with Hariri but has moved closer to the Shiite Hezbollah in the past year.

“It is too early to say what I will do,” Jumblatt told AFP on Thursday. “When the consultations on naming a new premier begin, we’ll see.”

An official close to the Hezbollah-led opposition said there was still a chance for the Saudi-Syrian initiative to succeed, in which case Hariri would easily be reappointed premier.

“If both sides agree to remain on that track, then no one can compete with Hariri,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP. “If they get off that track, then all options are open as far as other candidates for the premiership.”

But Ammar Houry, a member of Hariri’s parliamentary bloc, ruled out the nomination of any other candidate.

“Logically, there are no other candidates than Hariri and we expect him to be reappointed with a large majority of votes,” Houry told AFP.

Analysts predicted a drawn-out crisis that could eventually spiral into violence.

“It’s going to take many months, probably, to form a new government,” said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.

“On the downside, this could be the first step in a decline into other forms of tension,” he told AFP.

Wednesday’s cabinet collapse sparked a string of reactions from the international community, with the United Nations, Washington and France throwing their weight behind Hariri and the tribunal.

Neighbouring Israel slammed Hezbollah’s walkout as an attempt to “blackmail” the international community and prevent the publication of the tribunal’s indictments.

Iran in turn blamed the United States and Israel for the cabinet collapse, accusing them of “sabotage and obstruction.”

Arab League secretary general Amr Mussa told reporters in Doha he was “disturbed” by the collapse of the Lebanese government.

“The situation is bad, is tense, is threatening,” he added.

The standoff between Hariri’s camp and Hezbollah had virtually paralysed the government since its creation and prompted fears of sectarian violence similar to that which brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.

The 2008 unrest that left around 100 people dead was the culmination of an 18-month political crisis that erupted in 2006 after Hezbollah withdrew its ministers from the government.

President Barack Obama meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP)

President Barack Obama meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP)

A statue of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri stands near the seafront road where he was assassinated in a suicide bombing in 2005, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

A statue of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri stands near the seafront road where he was assassinated in a suicide bombing in 2005, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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