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Lebanon's Mikati resigns as prime minister

March 23, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati at a press conference in Beirut.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati at a press conference in Beirut. (Nabil Mounzer / EPA )

BEIRUT--Lebanon’s prime minister resigned late Friday in the latest indication of instability in a deeply divided nation where there is grave concern about spillover effects from the raging war in neighboring Syria.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati stepped down amid a parliamentary impasse about a long-debated new election law and the extension of the tenure of the internal security forces chief.

The resignation also came as fighting raged in his hometown, the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, between Lebanese factions on opposing sides of Syria’s civil conflict.

“I have sought, as much as I could, to preserve Lebanon and keep it away from erupting volcanoes,” Mikati said in announcing his departure.

The outgoing premier, who had been in power for almost two years, called for the creation of a national salvation government. Mikati was expected to remain in office in a caretaker capacity while parliament meets to sort out the political vacuum, the Lebanese press reported.

Lebanon’s government comprises a complex and delicate mix of sectarian and political blocs. Dominating the national legislature is a coalition headed by Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamist organization listed by the United States as a terrorist group. Hezbollah is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Some critics have called Mikati too close to Hezbollah. But his defenders have praised Mikati as a moderate and an adept operator who managed a shaky and divided government with a steady hand amid Lebanon’s recurring political crises and ever-escalating fallout from the battles in Syria. Lebanon and Syria share close historic, social and political ties.

 Syrian forces entered Lebanon in 1976 after the outbreak of the nation’s 15-year civil war and  remained for almost three decades before being forced to pull out in 2005 after street protests amid allegations of Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He and 21 others were killed in a massive truck bomb explosion near the Beirut waterfront.  Syria and Hezbollah denied any role in the attack, though a special United Nations tribunal has issued an indictment against four Hezbollah members in connection with the murders.

Since the rebellion against Syria's Assad erupted two years ago, more than 400,000 Syrian refugees have flooded into tiny Lebanon, taxing resources and raising tensions. The Syrian conflict and its strong sectarian undertones have also heightened sectarian strains in Lebanon, where a fragile balance of power exists among various Christian and Muslim sects.

Mikati, a telecommunications billionaire who is considered the richest man in Lebanon, endeavored to keep the nation neutral in the Syrian war. The Lebanese government adopted a strict policy of not taking sides in the conflict.

Mikati came close to resigning on two previous occasions, most recently last October, when a car bomb in a mostly Christian district of Beirut killed the head of police intelligence, a fierce adversary of the Syrian government. Various Lebanese politicians accused Syria or its allies of being behind the blast, though no one has been charged in the case. At the time, critics demanded Mikati’s resignation while supporters credited the prime minister with helping to keep the nation calm at an especially volatile moment.

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