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Cracks in Lebanon coalition

Disparaging remarks by a Druze leader may signal a split from the Sunni-led alliance backed by the West.

September 12, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Comments by a leading Lebanese politician published Thursday have stirred speculation that he is considering a break with the country's U.S.-backed political alliance, which is locked in a power struggle with the camp led by the pro-Iranian movement Hezbollah.

Walid Jumblatt, the colorful and outspoken leader of Lebanon's Druze community, accused his coalition's leader, Saad Hariri, of trying to build a militia and allying with Islamic extremists. In comments to a newspaper, he lampooned Hariri's leadership skills, likening his U.S.-backed Future Movement to a "troop of camels all walking together."

Hariri and his Sunni Muslim movement lead the March 14 coalition, which grew out of successful efforts to break Syria's dominance over Lebanon and maintains close ties to the Bush administration. A break by Jumblatt's party would mark a significant defection from the political front that opposes Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim political organization backed by Iran and Syria.

Jumblatt's office issued a statement saying the comments included "incorrectness" and were not meant for publication. It did not specify what was incorrect. His party's spokesman said Jumblatt had no plans to break with the March 14 coalition.

"There are no shifts in the alliances and we are still part of March 14," Rami Rayess, a spokesman for Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party, said in a phone interview.

Lebanon's squabbling factions are gearing up for crucial parliamentary elections next year that may decide whether the country will be in the Iranian or U.S. political orbit.

The country's kaleidoscope of ethnic and religious groupings have for decades alternately split and made up. But tensions between Shiites and Druze that heated up after clashes erupted in May continue. Rayess said there was little chance those wounds could be patched up in time for a reconciliation between the two communities before the election.

The Druze sect is a small, insular offshoot of Islam with communities in Lebanon, Syria and Israel.

Jumblatt once led a fierce Druze militia that weathered the country's 1975-90 civil war, often with the backing of Syria. From its perch in the Chouf mountains, Jumblatt's militia had fired mortar rounds on U.S. Marines camped out at the capital's airport.

But in the late 1990s, he began breaking with Damascus, becoming a leader of the drive to end Syrian military occupation of Lebanon.

Though he once accused Americans of being behind the Sept. 11 attacks, he ended up a friend of neoconservatives in Washington and their efforts to expand democracy in the Middle East.

Tall, thin and with two shocks of messy white hair on his balding head, Jumblatt often shoots from the hip with incendiary remarks about regional politics. He became an outspoken critic of Iran and Syria, even calling for airstrikes on Damascus as punishment for its alleged wrongs in Lebanon. He visited the White House, where he met with members of Vice President Dick Cheney's staff, and he last conferred with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on June 16.

In the front page story in the pro-Hezbollah Al Akhbar daily, Jumblatt was quoted as saying that Lebanese must endure Hezbollah's sizable arsenal of weapons, which the March 14 coalition and the U.S. and Israel want to eliminate. He also declared that he makes his most inflammatory anti-Syrian remarks because "politics requires it."

He accused Hariri of attempting to build a militia under the guise of security firms and said it was a mistake.

"To form a militia today?" he was quoted as saying. "To face whom? Hezbollah? This is crazy."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Raed Rafei contributed to this report.

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