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LEBANON: Walid Jumblatt's exit could weaken U.S.-backed coalition

August 3, 2009 |  6:54 am

Rice jumblattThe United States and its allies in Lebanon may have celebrated their electoral victory too soon. Key Druze ally and former neo-conservative darling Walid Jumblatt has announced his departure from the U.S. and Saudi-backed March 14 coalition, which won a solid majority in June’s general elections.

The results of the vote were touted by the American news media at the time as a victory for "forces of moderation" in the region.

But on Sunday, Jumblatt, who met with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as recently as November, described his meetings with U.S. officials as a “black spot” on his past and said his alliance with the U.S.-backed March 14 coalition “was driven by necessity and must not continue.”

Jumblatt's exit could weaken March 14's hold on parliament. Of March 14's 71 parliamentary seats, 11 belong to the Democratic Gathering Bloc, which is led by Jumblatt. If all 11 lawmakers were to withdraw from March 14, then the coalition would be left with a mere three-seat lead over the opposition and create a large independent/centrist bloc that could challenge the majority on key issues like the weapons of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite party.

Jumblatt’s departure also presents a conundrum for other, non-Druze March 14 politicians, such as Future bloc minister Mohammad Hajjar, who represents the Druze-controlled Shouf area and relies on a Jumblatt alliance for decisive Druze votes.

The March 14 general secretariat played down Jumblatt's statement, but parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri told the local daily As-Safir today  that Jumblatt's decision would certainly have negative repercussions on March 14, adding, perhaps sarcastically, that Jumblatt "never loses his bearing."

Indeed, Jumblatt is known as a shrewd politician who changes alliances easily and often. He was a close ally of Syria during its presence in Lebanon, but became one of the loudest detractors after its withdrawal in 2005.

Jumblatt has made overtures to Syria recently and said his latest about-face is intended to revive the "historic principles" of his party, which include leftist economic policies, Arab nationalism and resistance to Israel.

Local daily Al-Akhbar reported today that Jumblatt has already made plans to meet with Syrian Social Nationalist Party leader  Assaad Hardane, a rival of the March 14 camp, next week.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Walid Jumblatt meets with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Saad Hariri's headquarters in Beirut in June after the Doha Accord ended fighting in Lebanon. Credit: Dalati&Nohra / NNA

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