Lebanon’s prime minister steps down amid political dispute with Hezbollah

March 22, 2013

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his government’s resignation Friday, a move that could deeply destabilize the country at a time when the conflict in neighboring Syria is increasingly spilling across the border.

The announcement by Mikati, which was broadcast live on local TV stations, followed a stormy cabinet session in which the militant Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies blocked the formation of a committee to supervise upcoming parliamentary elections and refused to support a term extension for Lebanon’s police chief.

Hezbollah not only commands a large, well-trained militia, widely seen as the most powerful military force in the country, but also is a key player in Lebanese politics and runs a broad social services network.

“I announce the resignation of the government, hoping that this will open the way for the major political blocs to take responsibility and come together to bring Lebanon out of the unknown,” Mikati said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Mikati’s decision comes amid tremendous pressure on his country from the conflict next door, as rival Lebanese political factions square off inside Syria: Lebanese Sunni militants are fighting for the Syrian opposition, while Hezbollah fighters battle on behalf of the government of President Bashar al-
Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

Syria’s military is also staging increasingly bold attacks on Lebanese soil, targeting what it says are support lines for the opposition across the border. On Monday, Syrian jets bombed a remote area of northern Lebanon for the first time.

The infrastructure in Lebanon, mean­while, is under strain following the arrival in the past two years of 400,000 Syrian refugees an influx representing about a 10 percent increase in the country’s population.

Without clear political leadership, Lebanon could face serious sectarian violence sparked by the conflict in Syria, analysts say. “All the country is fragile and is subject to any security breach now,” said Elias Farhat, a political analyst and retired general.

Clashes linked to the Syrian war flared in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday between fighters from the Sunni and Alawite communities, a development that Mikati, who is Sunni and a native of Tripoli, noted in his resignation speech.

One of the main points of contention in the cabinet meeting Friday was the extension of the tenure of police chief Ashraf Rifi, who faces mandatory retirement April 1. Mikati has stood strongly by Rifi, who is Sunni, while Hezbollah and its political allies have opposed an extension of his term, a stance that the group’s critic say has sectarian motives.

Mikati’s critics, particularly the opposition coalition known as March 14th, have long accused the prime minister of being a Hezbollah stooge after he accepted the top post in 2011. But his resignation Friday showed that he would not follow Hezbollah’s lead at any price, analysts say.

Mikati must now present his resignation letter on Saturday to President Michel Suleiman, who must call a parliamentary session to name a new premier. Even if a successor is named by early next week, the process of forming a new government could drag on for months, analysts say.

Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.

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