After government collapse, Hezbollah works to get more power in Lebanon

Locator map of Beirut, Lebanon
Mary Kate Cannistra/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 11:26 PM

BEIRUT - A day after toppling the Lebanese government, the Shiite Hezbollah movement and its allies were working to gain enough support in parliament to control the selection of Lebanon's next prime minister, Lebanese officials said.

The ability to play that role would make the militant group - already the strongest armed power in Lebanon - the nation's most important political player as well. That would trigger alarm in Washington, which has backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri as a counterweight to Hezbollah and its supporters, Iran and Syria.

The government collapsemarked a last-ditch effort by Hezbollah to pressure Hariri to renounce the work of a United Nations tribunal investigating the death of his father, Rafiq al-Hariri, a Sunni Arab former prime minister who was assassinated in 2005. Hezbollah has consistently denied any role in the car bombing along Beirut's waterfront, but members of the group arewidely expected to be indicted in the killing.

Observers said Thursday that Hezbollah officials still hope to persuade Hariri to renounce the tribunal and that, in exchange, the group would allow him to retain his post. The group believes Hariri's rejection of the tribunal as not credible would protect its reputation in the Muslim world. Draft indictments are expected this month.

"The opposition tried to reach an agreement with Hariri on the tribunal. They couldn't, so the government failed," said a senior Lebanese official from the March 8 Alliance, a coalition of parties that includes Hezbollah. "They will try to form a government that is in line with their views on the subject."

On Thursday, President Michel Suleiman asked the Hariri-led government to stay on in a caretaker role and called a meeting with members of parliament on Monday to consult on the next prime minister. Under Lebanon's political system, the government's top positions are divided among religions and sects. The prime minister must be a Sunni Arab; Hezbollah and its allies hope to build a broad coalition to select a Sunni ally to take the position, and by some counts were just a handful of seats away from that on Thursday. But the negotiations are expected to be tense and difficult.

Hezbollah doesn't "want to have a government in place that would agree with or cooperate with the steps of the tribunal," said Sami Baroudi, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. If the government collapse fails to persuade Hariri to denounce the tribunal, Hezbollah will keep pushing for a new government. Appointing a prime minister besides Hariri would be Hezbollah's "Plan B," Baroudi said.

Hariri was in Washington when his government collapsed and cut short his visit. He was expected to stop in France before returning to Beirut, but had not arrived in Lebanon on Thursday night. Instead he went from France to Turkey to discuss Lebanon's crisis, said Mustapha Alloush, a member of the political bureau of Hariri's Future Movement. Television channels allied with the March 8 Alliance were running graphics poking fun at how little Hariri has been in Lebanon over the past two months.

"Why should Hariri rush back?" Alloush said. "He's already in this situation, the cabinet has already resigned and coming back early would not change anything," he said, adding that his alliance was also working to maintain enough support to keep Hariri in power.

Alloush added that Hezbollah was trying to "rule Lebanon" and annex it for Iran.

Hezbollah officials could not be reached for comment Thursday. The group faces a difficult path as it tries to protect its domestic and regional reputation.

The indictments would probably be portrayed as evidence that members of Hezbollah were Shiite killers of Lebanon's Sunni leader. The country, always teetering on the brink of a flare-up, could easily fall into a sectarian war, with the potential to spill over into a larger regional conflict.

The past five years have been a time of uncertainty and intermittent violence, painful reminders of the country's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

Beirut was quiet on Thursday as young fashionistas sipped lattes at trendy cafes. But just under the surface there was a sense that things could change at any moment.

"It's not just fear," said Leila Hamid as she visited a western Beirut sandwich shop. In the morning, on the road from Beirut to the north of the city, she'd seen the Lebanese Army lining the streets. "I feel the country is going to fly from our hands. It's going to happen. Lebanon will be like Iraq or Pakistan."

She blinked back tears. "Lebanon is lost," she said.

Special correspondent Moe Ali Nayel contributed to this report.

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