The collapse of Lebanon's government plunged the country into deep political uncertainty Thursday after a year of relative stability, as the president began the process of putting a new administration together.
President Michel Suleiman asked Saad Hariri to stay on as caretaker prime minister after the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah and its allies resigned Wednesday and brought down Hariri's government.
The crisis was the climax of tensions that have been simmering for months over the U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The tribunal is widely expected to indict members of Hezbollah soon, which many fear could rekindle violence in the tiny nation plagued for decades by war and civil strife.
Lebanon's 14-month-old unity government was an uneasy coalition linking bitter rivals — a Western-backed bloc led by Hariri and the Shiite Hezbollah — that was an attempt to stabilize the country. But in reality, it had been paralyzed for months because of disputes over the Hariri tribunal.
Hezbollah, which is supported by Syria and Iran and maintains an arsenal that far outweighs that of the national army, denounces the Netherlands-based tribunal as a conspiracy by the U.S. and Israel. It had been pressuring Hariri to reject any of its findings even before they came out, but Hariri has refused to break cooperation with the tribunal.
Now, the chasm between the two sides is deepening with Hezbollah accusing Hariri's bloc of bowing to the West. Hezbollah's ministers timed their resignations to coincide with Hariri's meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, forcing him to meet the American president as a caretaker prime minister.
The collapse of the government ushers in the worst political crisis since 2008 in one of the most volatile corners of the Middle East.
Lebanon suffered through a devastating civil war from 1975-1990, a 1982 Israeli invasion to drive out Palestinian fighters in the south, a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and deadly sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
Israel also said it was worried about renewed violence on its northern border with Lebanon. Israeli troops stationed along the frontier were on alert Thursday.
Suleiman began consultations over the choice of a new prime minister Thursday. He met with parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who told reporters after the meeting that the president would begin polling lawmakers on their choice on Monday.
There were expectations of prolonged wrangling over the selection of prime minister.
Politicians in the pro-Western coalition said there was no alternative to the 40-year-old billionaire Hariri, who remains the most popular choice among Sunnis. According to Lebanon's constitution, the president must be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite.
Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian right-wing Lebanese Forces group which is allied with Hariri, said Hariri's backers would name him again as their choice.
"It would be a grave mistake to even think about an alternative to Saad Hariri," he warned Wednesday.
The opposition, meanwhile, said it would be futile for Hariri to return as prime minister and insisted there were alternatives among Lebanon's Sunni community.
Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammed Raad suggested Thursday the next prime minister should be a supporter of the group.
"We should agree on the way to administer the country with a strong government headed by someone with a history of national resistance," he said.
The president said he was accepting the resignations of 11 ministers — which amounted to the more than one-third of the 30-member Cabinet required to bring the government down.
But the president asked Hariri to continue managing the country's day-to-day affairs until a new cabinet is formed.