Hezbollah Threatens Protests to Topple Lebanese Government

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 20, 2006

BEIRUT, Nov. 19 -- In a deepening crisis that has paralyzed Lebanese politics, the leader of Hezbollah urged his well-organized followers to prepare for mass protests aimed at toppling the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The order by Hasan Nasrallah, given in a speech Saturday that was broadcast Sunday, was the latest in a test of wills between Hezbollah and a government that Nasrallah dismissed as more representative of the U.S. ambassador than Siniora.

More than a simple political standoff in an always fractious country, many see the escalating struggle as perhaps the most decisive in Lebanon in a generation. It may determine which forces guide the country for years ahead: the coalition around Siniora that draws its strength from the country's Sunni Muslims, Druze and some Christians and has aligned itself with the United States and Europe, or Hezbollah's Shiite Muslim constituency, backed by Iran and Syria, and its Christian allies represented by a former Lebanese general.

As is common here, many see the struggle as a proxy battle involving the United States, Israel, Syria and Iran.

"When the time comes, we have to be ready," said Nasrallah, whose group fought a 33-day war with Israel this summer. "We could call for demonstrations in 24 hours, 12 hours or six hours. We have to be ready in all cases."

The crisis erupted in full force after two ministers from Hezbollah, three other Shiites and an allied politician resigned from Siniora's cabinet on Nov. 11 after talks broke down on granting Hezbollah and its allies greater representation, a move that would effectively give Hezbollah veto power over government decisions.

The crisis deepened two days later after the cabinet, without its Shiite representation, approved a draft of a U.N. plan for an international tribunal to try the suspected killers of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who died in a car bombing in February 2005. The attack has been widely blamed on Syria, a Hezbollah ally.

In the speech, Nasrallah said the government faced two choices: either resign in favor of what he called a national unity government that would give a far greater voice to Hezbollah and its allies, or hold early parliamentary elections. If neither demand is met, he said, the movement would resort to demonstrations until "the illegitimate, unconstitutional government" fell.

Nasrallah stressed that the protests, perhaps lasting days or even weeks, would remain peaceful.

"We will not allow any clash," he said.

Supporters of Siniora's government, critical of Hezbollah's role in starting the war this summer, have gone back and forth over whether they will greet protests with their own demonstrations. They view Hezbollah's campaign as effectively a coup d'etat aimed at derailing the international tribunal and ensuring that Hezbollah retains its weapons.

Still living in the shadow of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, many Lebanese worry about the potential for violence if the crisis heads to the streets, where each movement has draped neighborhoods in the iconography and symbolism of its own view of history.


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