Lebanon again at the brink

Are Syria and Iran behind Hizbullah's latest gambit to bring down the Lebanese government?

Fresh from fighting Israeli troops in south Lebanon this summer, militant Hizbullah is engaged in a new battle – this one political. Its supporters and its opposition allies are camping on the streets of Beirut determined to bring down the Western-backed Lebanese government.

Hizbullah's new campaign, which entered its third day Sunday, brings into sharp relief the conflicting motivations underpinning the group, in which its ambitions as a national party are balanced against obligations as an Iranian and Syrian ally in the struggle to curb US regional influence.

But to win politically at home, especially in its bid to bring down the anti-Syrian March 14 ruling coalition, Hizbullah has to convince Lebanon that it isn't simply pushing an agenda dictated by Tehran and Damascus.

"The Syrian-Iranian camp, led by Hizbullah, has begun to implement a plot for a coup," proclaimed a headline in Saturday's Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, which is owned by the family of Saad Hariri, who heads the March 14 bloc.

To be sure, Hizbullah denies that its actions are dictated by outsiders. "Definitely Michel Aoun is not allied to Syria and Iran, and he's a big component of this opposition movement," says Ali Mokdad, a Hizbullah member of parliament, referring to a retired general who heads a mainly Christian opposition party and fought the Syrian Army in Lebanon in 1989-90. "This accusation is not logical. We are a completely Lebanese movement."

Rows of coiled razor wire and armored vehicles mark the new front line in Lebanon's latest political crisis. The barricades are strung across roads leading to the Grand Serail, the Ottoman-era military barracks that today houses the offices of the prime minister, Fouad Siniora. Mr. Siniora and several cabinet colleagues have been working and sleeping in the safety of the Grand Serail since the assassination two weeks ago of Pierre Gemayel, industry minister and a Christian leader.

A stone's throw from the hilltop building are dozens of white canvas tents erected by the protesters Friday evening. One city square facing theGrand Serailand the glass and stone United Nations building is occupied by supporters of Hizbullah and its allies in the Amal Movement, another by Christian and Druze opposition groups.

A towering bank of loudspeakers broadcasts a steady diet of Hizbullah military songs and recorded speeches by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's charismatic leader.

"We will be here not less than five days," says Ali Allawi, a Hizbullah supporter from Tyre in south Lebanon. "It might take longer because those people up there are crocodiles," he adds with a dismissive gesture at the nearby Grand Serail.

The long-simmering political crisis escalated two weeks ago when a depleted government endorsed a UN resolution to form an international tribunal to try those suspected of killing Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who died in a truck bomb explosion in February last year. The vote went ahead without the participation of six ministers – including all five Shiites – who quit the government prior to the emergency cabinet session.

Emile Lahoud, Lebanon's staunchly pro-Syrian president, as well as Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker and ally of Hizbullah, has ruled the government's approval of the tribunal as unconstitutional due to the absence of the Shiite ministers and the lack of prior coordination between the president and prime minister.

The March 14 coalition suspects that the Hizbullah-led opposition is acting on behalf of Syria to hinder or delay the formation of the tribunal. A UN commission investigating Hariri's murder has indicated the involvement of senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials.

But Hizbullah dismisses the notion that the tribunal lies at the root of the present troubles, insisting that the street protest is solely about domestic grievances. "The talk about the tribunal is just an excuse by the government," says Mr. Mokdad. "This is a Lebanese affair. We want a government of national unity that represents all the Lebanese, including the groups that make up March 14."

The opposition says its campaign was spurred by the March 14 coalition refusing to grant it a number of cabinet seats proportionate to its share of parliament. The opposition component of the 24-seat government included four ministers considered allies of Mr. Lahoud. But recently they had begun to distance themselves from the president, shifting the balance of power in the cabinet firmly in favor of the March 14 bloc.

"All we wanted was to replace Lahoud's share with our allies to restore the balance in the government," says Ali Hamdan, an official with Amal. "They [the government] should stop saying that Hizbullah is hijacking a large part of Lebanese society," he adds. "These are not the Taliban, they are Lebanese."

Still, Hizbullah's opposition also reflects a deep mistrust of a government that it regards as a tool of US foreign policy. The Shiite party was angered by what it considered to be a lack of support from the government during the war with Israel and has accused it of plotting to disarm Hizbullah's military wing on US orders to benefit Israel.

The Bush administration, which fully endorsed the mass street protests of 22 months ago that brought down the pro-Syrian government of then Prime Minister Omar Karami, has likened the Hizbullah-led equivalent to a "coup" attempt.

With US authority in Iraq steadily waning, Lebanon finds itself playing a key role in the confrontation pitting Washington and its regional allies against an anti-Western alliance grouping Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas.

If Hizbullah and its allies succeed in toppling the government, US influence in Lebanon will inevitably weaken in favor of Syria and Iran. And that, say some analysts, is an underlying motive for Hizbullah's political gambit.

"I think Hizbullah's primary perspective has to be regional," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "They are stuck in a regional agenda because they are financed by Iran."

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