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Lebanon's political crisis deepens as prime minister-designate abruptly quits

U.S.-backed Saad Hariri says meddling by Iranian- and Syrian-backed opponents has thwarted his efforts to form a Cabinet. He could be renominated and some predict Western leaders will urge a deal.

September 11, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — Lebanon's U.S.-backed prime minister-designate quit abruptly Thursday, plunging the nation deeper into a political crisis over failed efforts to form a government.

Saad Hariri, whose March 14 coalition of political parties trounced a Hezbollah-backed alliance in June 7 elections, announced that he was stepping down from his post after failing to form a Cabinet. He blamed the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition, saying it made unreasonable demands.

"After a final round of negotiations, it became clear to me that some, with their impossible demands, are in no way going to allow the proposed Cabinet lineup to pass," Hariri, leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community, said in a televised statement after meeting with President Michel Suleiman. "I announce to all Lebanese that I informed his excellency, the president, today that I am unable to form the government."

The nation is a political battleground where the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies face off against the self-described Iranian-led "camp of resistance," which includes the militant group Hezbollah and Syria, long a key power broker in Lebanon. The Lebanese political system is based on a power-sharing formula involving the Christian, Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Druze religious communities.

Suleiman, a Christian, must now designate a new prime minister, and Hariri could be renominated. One analyst described his resignation as a cry for help and predicted that major international players, including the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, would intervene to press the parties to make a deal.

"Now it's more like Hariri has stopped and he is no longer trying to form a government," said Paul Salem, Beirut analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But if it doesn't work out soon, in the next week or 10 days, then his resignation might be more final, and we're in a less predictable phase."

If Suleiman designates him again as prime minister, Hariri could try to form a Cabinet without the support of the opposition. But analysts say that risks deepening the crisis.

"This would be seen as too dangerous," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at American University of Beirut. "Hezbollah would view this as a declaration of war."

Hariri's allies alleged that the opposition was holding up formation of a government on behalf of its regional patrons. Iran's relations with the West are at a nadir over its nuclear program, and a rapprochement between Syria and the U.S., along with its Saudi ally, has stalled. Hariri and many Western officials accuse Syria of being behind the death of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose 2005 assassination is under investigation by a United Nations tribunal.

"The opposition team doesn't want a government for several reasons, including Iran, the tribunal and tense relations between Syria and the West," said Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, according to Lebanese news websites.

Mustafa Aloush, a former lawmaker close to Hariri, said his camp believed the opposition was "at least inspired by Iran and Syria" to block the Cabinet.

But the opposition disagreed, saying Hariri made big mistakes after the June vote that alienated some of his allies, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who defected from his camp last month, and Christian leader Amin Gemayel, who recently spoke out against him.

Hariri also angered friends and rivals alike by trying to pick and choose Cabinet members from each camp rather than allowing each political party to select its own nominees, opposition figures said.

"Everyone was unhappy with him," said one opposition official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. "How can we see the role of Iran and Syria in this? This failure was made by his hand."

Hezbollah, a Shiite political organization and militia backed by Iran, has for years sought more political power. Its fighters took over West Beirut in May 2008 in a show of strength that forced the U.S.-backed government to grant it veto power over major decisions, including whether the group should be disarmed.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels contributed to this report.

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