Wednesday, January 12, 2011
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah and its allies forced the collapse of the government here on Wednesday, deepening a crisis over a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of a former prime minister.
Eleven of the cabinet’s 30 ministers announced their resignations, a move that dissolves the government. They said they were prompted to act by the cabinet’s refusal to convene an emergency session to oppose the tribunal, which is expected to expected to indict members of Hezbollah.
Ten of the ministers announced their resignations just as Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting with President Obama in Washington. The opposition had hoped that all 11 ministers would resign together, to bring down the government at that time and embarrass Mr. Hariri to the maximum.
But the 11th minister, Adnan Sayed Hussein, announced his resignation in a statement later in the evening, the National News Agency reported, after the meeting in Washington was over.
The collapse of the fragile government marks the worst crisis in Lebanon since 2008, when an agreement reached in Qatar achieved a truce to end sectarian clashes that killed 81 people and brought Lebanon to the brink of a renewal of its 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
“We were committed but they were not,” said Ammar Houri, a lawmaker with Mr. Hariri’s bloc. He added that Mr. Hariri’s allies were meeting to decide the next step.
Hezbollah and its foes have wrestled over the direction of the small Mediterranean country since the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was killed in a bombing along Beirut’s seafront in 2005. Twenty-two other people died in the attack. Since then, the tribunal has investigated his death and is now widely expected to indict members of Hezbollah, the country’s powerful Shiite Muslim movement.
Hezbollah has denied involvement and denounced the tribunal as an “Israeli project.” It has urged the slain man’s son, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to reject its findings. Mr. Hariri has so far resisted the pressure.
There has been a sense of inevitability to the resignation by cabinet ministers allied with Hezbollah. For months, Hezbollah has warned that it would not stand by as its members were accused of involvement in the assassination of Mr. Hariri’s father. Though it is technically part of the opposition, Hezbollah joined a unity government formed after elections in June 2009. It has emerged as the single most powerful force in the country, aided by its alliance with a powerful Christian general and the fracturing of its foes.
In contrast to 2005, Hezbollah’s adversaries — gathered around Mr. Hariri — have fewer options and less support than they once did, emblematic of the vast changes in Lebanon’s political landscape the past few years. While the Bush administration wholeheartedly backed Mr. Hariri and his allies then, President Obama has not pledged the same kind of support. Syria, whose influence was waning in 2005, has re-emerged in Lebanon, and even its detractors here have sought some kind of relationship with it. Most Lebanese also vividly recall the speed at which Hezbollah and its allies vanquished their foes in just a few days of street fighting in Beirut in May 2008.
“Who are your allies these days?” Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with As-Safir newspaper, asked of Mr. Hariri’s camp. “You are going to get beaten on the streets and you will not be able to respond.”
The decision to resign came after the collapse of talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria aimed at easing the political tension. The two countries have backed rival camps in Lebanon since 2005 and their initiative was seen across the political spectrum as the best chance to end the stalemate. But Tuesday night, Michel Aoun, a former general and Hezbollah’s Christian ally, announced the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
“The initiative has ended with no result,” he said.
The prospect of the government’s collapse sent a wave of anxiety through Lebanon, which has seen only brief periods of calm since Rafik Hariri’s killing and has often found itself perched between the competing agendas of Hezbollah allies — Iran and Syria — and Mr. Hariri’s supporters, in particular the United States and Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudi-Syrian initiative was an attempt to prevent strife in the country,” said Walid Sukkariyeh, a lawmaker allied with Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament.
A leading opposition newspaper, Al Akhbar, underlined the sense of unease with an editorial headlined, “The beginning of the unknown.”
Many here fear that “unknown” could turn bloody with street clashes in which Hezbollah is likely to prevail. An outbreak of violence might enable it to effectively seize control of the government and force a new reality on the streets of Beirut, at least until a new agreement can be reached under the auspices of foreign powers, who have long played an outsized role in the country’s domestic affairs.
Other analysts dismiss the prospect of violence, given Hezbollah’s strength. A more likely scenario, they say, is months of political stalemate, not unlike Lebanon witnessed between 2006 and 2008, before another deal is reached.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.