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LEBANON: Showdown between Hezbollah and Hariri expected over naming of premier

January 23, 2011 |  1:28 pm

Following a week of twists and turns in Lebanon's unfolding political crisis over a United Nations-backed tribunal, feuding Lebanese parties are heading for a showdown as scheduled talks to pick a new prime minister threaten to stall once again.

On Sunday night, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah took to the airwaves to say that his group and its political allies would decide "in the coming hours" whether talks could take place on Monday as scheduled.

According to Lebanon's confessional political system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, but Hezbollah and its main Christian ally have flat-out rejected the reelection of current caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Hariri is a Washington favorite and leader of the movement championing the tribunal, which is currently reviewing indictments thought to implicate Hezbollah members in the assassination of Saad Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“Our initial response was to topple the government, which was unable to protect Lebanon and face the repercussions of the [tribunal]," said Nasrallah, referring to the mass walkout of opposition lawmakers last week that led to the collapse of the government.

"If [Hariri and his allies] want to use this stage to pressure us, my response is that after the release of the indictment, we will not yield to anything that has been imposed on us," he said without elaborating.

Nasrallah was coy on the subject of who his political bloc would nominate for prime minister, noting that his group's first choice, veteran politician and former Prime Minister Omar Karami, would only accept "if there were no other option" because of his advanced age.

The key factor that could tip the balance in Hezbollah's favor is the recent defection of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who after over a year of hinting, officially threw his support behind "Syria and the resistance" at a news conference on Saturday.

Jumblatt's bloc in parliament consists of 11 lawmakers, including several Christians and a Sunni, whose votes appear to be up in the air. Hariri has vowed to run again, despite opposition.

Jumblatt recently went to Syria and met with Syrian President Bashar Assad while Lebanese President Sleiman postponed the then-scheduled parliamentary consultations to choose a new prime minister. In Damascus, Jumblatt is widely reported to have come under strong pressure to make sure his bloc casts its vote for the opposition.

"The Syrians were very tough on him and they told him: 'Now go vote for the opposition,'" Hilal Khashan, a political scientist, told Babylon & Beyond. "That's why the president delayed the consultations until after Jumblatt had talked to the Syrians. Now Jumblatt knows what to do, therefore the president may initiate the consultations."

Hariri's supporters, who make up the March 14 coalition, publicly have expressed confidence in the former and current caretaker prime minister's ability to win the vote.

"I am sure we still have the majority in the parliament,” Ahmad Fatfat, a lawmaker in the March 14 coalition was quoted as saying by Lebanese media reports following Jumblatt's defection. He went on to accuse the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition of trying to "overthrow the system."

While Hezbollah and its allies may have the vote, analysts told Babylon & Beyond that a prime minister who is seen as being a "Hezbollah pick" would run into problems of legitimacy both inside Lebanon and abroad.

Some have raised concerns that a Hezbollah-friendly government will give Israel freer rein to target state institutions and the army in a future war. Others fear the stalemate could spark internal sectarian violence.

Tiny Lebanon, often at the whim of foreign powers, has witnessed foreign ministers and government officials from various countries shuttling in and out of Beirut in attempts to mediate a solution that would resolve the country's spiraling political crisis.

But Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Syria have reportedly all given up mediation efforts, reflecting the deep divisions between rivaling parties.

 --Alexandra Sandels and Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Lawmakers from Hezbollah and its allies in government announced their resignation last week, toppling the government. Credit: Associated Press