By Zeina Karam
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
BEIRUT, Nov. 13 -- A weakened Lebanese government on Monday approved a U.N. plan for an international tribunal for suspects in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, despite the resignation of six ministers and the objections of the president.
The vote was a victory for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who is facing the threat of mass protests unless Hezbollah and its Shiite Muslim allies gain veto power in the cabinet. All 18 ministers remaining in the cabinet voted for the U.N. plan, under which a process would begin for the prosecution of Hariri's alleged killers in a court with international legitimacy.
The draft document now returns to the U.N. Security Council for endorsement, but its final approval by the government was far from certain.
"Our aim is to achieve justice and only justice," Siniora said after the three-hour cabinet meeting.
Hariri was killed with 22 others in a suicide truck bombing in February 2005. The assassination sparked huge protests against Syria, which was widely seen as culpable. Syria denied involvement, but was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year domination of the neighboring country. Subsequent elections produced an anti-Syrian majority in parliament and in the cabinet.
Some opposition figures said the cabinet's approval was illegal because none of the five Shiite ministers who resigned Saturday was present.
Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud said Sunday that Siniora's government was no longer legitimate because the constitution requires that "all sects should be justly represented in the cabinet." The constitution recognizes 18 religion-based communities and most of them are represented in a full cabinet by at least one minister. Half the ministers have to be Christian and half Muslim.
Lahoud said all decisions taken by the cabinet, including Monday's, were "null and void."
Environment Minister Yaacoub Sarraf, a Christian minister allied with the president, resigned shortly before the cabinet meeting. Siniora refused to accept Sarraf's resignation, as he had refused to accept those of the Hezbollah and Shiite Amal ministers on Saturday.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the root of the tension was fear of what may emerge.
"Either they, themselves, are worried that they may end up before such a tribunal, or that their friends will end up before such a tribunal," McCormack said.