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Hezbollah picks up allies in parliament

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By Leila Fadel
Saturday, January 22, 2011

BEIRUT - The Shiite movement Hezbollah received a major boost Friday in its efforts to form a new government in Lebanon when a potential kingmaker swung his support behind the group and its allies.

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The decision by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt could mean that Hezbollah has the support it needs in Lebanon's parliament to nominate the next prime minister and formally end the rule of a Western-backed government here.

Jumblatt would not say how many lawmakers from his coalition would vote with Hezbollah and its allies. Before Friday, Hezbollah needed eight more seats to form a majority, and Jumblatt's bloc controls 11.

The Shiite movement, whose militia is the nation's strongest military force, withdrew from the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week in protest over his refusal to renounce a U.N. tribunal that was investigating the 2005 killing of his father, a former prime minister, and was expected to indict Hezbollah members. Hariri's government collapsed with the move, although he has stayed on as a caretaker prime minister.

Jumblatt, who had once supported the U.N. inquiry, called it a "threat to national unity and national security" during a news conference Friday. He said his party "will stand firm in support of . . . the resistance," a reference to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah's decision to bring down Hariri's unity government was risky and could still backfire. Even with Jumblatt's announcement, Hezbollah is by no means assured of being able to nominate the head of the next government when President Michel Suleiman launches formal talks scheduled for Monday. Nor is it clear that a Hezbollah-led alliance is ready to rule; the group may find the task less appealing than its current role in the opposition.

Since the unity government collapsed, Lebanon has become further polarized between Hariri, a Sunni who is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah, which is supported by Syria and Iran. If prolonged political paralysis or violence ensue, Hezbollah may shoulder the blame, analysts say.

Hezbollah also walks a fine line as it tries to discredit the probable indictment of some of its members in the death of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Hezbollah strongly denies involvement in the killing and has questioned the credibility of the U.N. tribunal, which it calls a tool of the Americans and the Israelis. Hezbollah wants to stop Lebanon's cooperation with the inquiry without appearing to use force or alienating the Sunni Arab world.

"Hezbollah, in particular, couldn't afford to do nothing, but it also knows the cost of doing too much," said Robert Malley, the regional director for the International Crisis Group. "They are hoping by incrementally increasing the pressure" to gain the concessions they want.

In 2008, Hezbollah used force to take over large sections of Beirut. The move showed clearly its military clout but also tarnished its reputation among Sunnis.

Under Lebanon's constitution, the prime minister must be Sunni. If Hezbollah and its allies can muster a parliamentary majority, they will have to choose a candidate with enough credibility among Sunnis to stave off unrest.

"Hezbollah has been trying to avoid a replay of what they had to do in 2008, but they also feel that they're increasingly in a corner," said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Institute for International Peace.

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