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Beirut quiet a day after Hezbollah pullout forces collapse of Lebanon's government

By Leila Fadel and Moe Ali Nayel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 8:04 AM

BEIRUT- The Lebanese capital was largely quiet on Thursday, one day after the collapse of the country's government, as President Michel Suleiman took the first step towards putting together a new administration.

Suleiman asked the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to continue in a caretaker role after the Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies resigned Wednesday, toppling the governing coalition. Hariri , who met Wednesday at the White House with President Obama, had not yet returned from his overseas trip.

Tensions have been growing for months over the impending indictments from a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, father of the current prime minister.

It is widely believed that the indictments, expected in draft form this month, will implicate members of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group.

On Wednesday, 11 cabinet ministers from the Shiite group and its allies resigned in protest over the government's failure to denounce the expected indictments. Their resignations toppled the government.

The indictments could spark sectarian clashes in Lebanon, a mixed Arab nation of Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The situation could destabilize this key Middle Eastern nation, a U.S. ally that has become a regional battleground, pitting Saudi Arabia and its Western supporters against Iran and Syria.

The stakes are high for the United States. Hariri is Washington's strongest ally in Lebanon, but his faction has slowly withered as Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has grown in strength and popularity.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Qatar for talks with Persian Gulf leaders, delivered a forceful rebuke of Hezbollah's move, calling it an "abdication of responsibility."

"We view what happened today as a transparent effort by those forces inside Lebanon, as well as interests outside Lebanon, to subvert justice and undermine Lebanon's stability and progress," she said at a news conference.

Clinton, who was joined at the news conference by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim - whose own government had sought to mediate between rival Lebanese factions - noted that Hezbollah had initially acceded to the U.N.-led investigation of the Hariri assassination. She warned that attempts to derail the tribunal's effort "will not work."

"This tribunal is a creation of the U.N. Security Council, and it is supported by many governments, including my own," she said. "Its work will continue."

A regional battleground

The U.N. tribunal has indicated that members of Hezbollah will be charged in the bombing on Beirut's waterfront that killed Hariri and 22 others. But Hezbollah has denied any role and has dubbed the tribunal an "Israeli project."

"It's clear the opposition is trying to work through the constitution," said Wafic Kanso, a pro-opposition journalist with the left-leaning Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. The resignations were "an expected step from the opposition after giving so many chances to [Hariri's party]."

While Hezbollah's withdrawal from the governing coalition is dramatic, Obama administration officials say it may have little immediate effect. It will probably be several days before Lebanon's president officially dissolves the government, and one senior administration official said it is "likely" that Hariri will remain acting prime minister for the foreseeable future.

The official said Hezbollah's departure reflects the movement's fear over the impending indictments. "We reject the false choice between justice and stability," the official said. "The Lebanese people deserve both."

At their Washington meeting, according to a White House statement, Obama and Hariri "specifically discussed united efforts with France, Saudi Arabia, and other key international and regional actors to maintain calm in Lebanon and ensure that the work of the Tribunal continues unimpeded by third parties."

The government crisis came a day after Saudi Arabia and Syria failed to reach an agreement to defuse tensions over the tribunal.

The Obama administration believed that Saudi efforts to head off a government crisis in Lebanon were promising. But their failure, administration officials said, reflects in part Syria's enduring concern over the tribunal's work. Syria has long used Hezbollah to exert its influence in Lebanon and against Israel, which occupies the Golan Heights, once held by Syria.

"Syria wants to have it both ways - to build relationships in the West and yet meddle in Lebanon," the senior official said. "I think they are going to hear a very clear message from the French, from us, and from others in the Arab world that that cannot be the case."

Hezbollah's next move

Hezbollah, an armed Shiite Muslim movement that also has a stake in the government, has turned to its arsenal before at delicate political times. But administration officials do not expect that it will do so this time.

"They are playing a longer game to some degree, and at the moment I don't know if confrontation would serve their interests or those of their Iranian patrons," the senior official said.

Officials from Hezbollah could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

In 2006, Israel waged a devastating war against Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon, leveling much of the southern part of the country and the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Gebran Basil, Lebanon's Christian energy minister, announced the resignations Wednesday night and asked the president to form a new government on behalf of the March 8 Alliance, a coalition of parties that includes Hezbollah and makes up the opposition against Hariri's Future Movement, according to the National News Agency, a state-owned outlet.

Basil said he made the statement after Hariri did not agree to demands for an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the tribunal. The March 8 Alliance is generally viewed as pro-Syrian.

"There is more tension, and we are at a very critical point. Definitely this may entail some security problems," said Mustafa Alloush, a member of the political bureau of the Future Movement. He said Hariri will return to Beirut after meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. "The crisis is already here and has been here for a long time. We are always worried about security in a country like Lebanon with an armed militia inside it. We are ready for all possibilities."

Lebanon has lived through a series of crises since Hariri's killing, including car bombings that targeted political leaders and sectarian fights in the streets in 2008, when Hezbollah showed its military might by taking over central Beirut briefly before standing down.

Residents of Beirut were already preparing for the worst on Wednesday, some packing up and traveling north in case of another flare-up. Others heralded Hezbollah's strength in the face of the indictments.

Mustapha, a businessman who asked to be identified only by his first name, said he called his wife to tell her they may be heading north soon. He closed two of his stores because of bad business and prayed that there would be no clashes.

"I personally don't want to know the truth anymore, and Saad Hariri should drop it - there is no point," he said. "Even if the indictments are issued, who will do the arrests? We don't know who to believe anymore. The country was dysfunctional while there was a national unity government, and now it is toppled and the country is dysfunctional and dangerous."

Staff writers Joby Warrick in Doha, Qatar, and Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

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