Lebanon government set to collapse over Hariri tribunal

Hezbollah was expected to pull out of Lebanon's government today over the country's involvement in the Hariri tribunal, which is expected to indict Hezbollah members in the prime minister's 2005 assassination.

Bilal Hussein/AP
In this Nov. 28, 2010 photo, Hezbollah supporters listen to the speech of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during a ceremony in Beirut's southern suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon. Several Hezbollah members are expected to be indicted by the tribunal for involvement in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The images in the background show slain Hezbollah leaders, from left, top Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah leader Sheik Ragheb Harb and Sheik Abbas Musawi.

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Hezbollah and its political allies in Lebanon were set to announce the resignation of eleven ministers from the government's unity coalition Wednesday, which would topple the government and raise concerns of new protests and paralysis in Lebanon.

The Daily Star of Lebanon reports that the resignations, which were to be announced this afternoon local time, were due to Hezbollah and its allies being rebuffed in their demands for an emergency cabinet meeting Tuesday to discuss Lebanese cooperation in the United Nation's Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The STL is investigating the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, father of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has refused to end Lebanese participation in the US-backed tribunal. Several Hezbollah members are expected to be indicted by the tribunal for involvement in the assassination.

Mr. Hariri is scheduled to meet President Obama in Washington today to discuss the crisis, the Associated Press reported.

A source told the Daily Star that Hezbollah and its allies sought the emergency cabinet meeting "to stop payment of Lebanon’s share toward the financing of the S.T.L., withdraw the Lebanese judges from the tribunal, end Lebanon’s cooperation with the S.T.L., and prosecute the 'false witnesses' linked to the U.N. probe into Rafik Hariri’s killing..." They warned that failure to hold the meeting would result in the mass resignations of its cabinet members, bringing down the government.

Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, says that it is unlikely that Hezbollah will respond to the political crisis by sending gunmen into the streets of Beirut as it did in May 2008, Reuters reports. But Mr. Khashan says that street protests are a possibility. "The phenomenon of food riots is spreading in the Arab world, so the opposition may shield itself behind popular demands for combating inflation," he said.

The resignations come after a last-ditch effort by Saudi Arabia and Syria, who represent the opposing Lebanese factions, failed to bring about a compromise. Al Jazeera reports that the negotiations between the Saudis and Syrians were thought to be the best chance to avoid political crisis in Lebanon, but that they reached a "dead end" according to Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah ally. Hezbollah laid blame at the feet of the US, Al Jazeera adds.

Hezbollah, which has rejected allegations it was involved in the suicide bombing on the Beirut seafront in 2005 that killed Hariri and 22 others, blamed "American intervention and the inability of the other side to overcome American pressure" for the failure to reach a compromise.

When asked why the talks collapsed, Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah cabinet minister, said: "Ask Mrs. Clinton," referring to the US secretary of State.

Prime Minister Hariri, who is in the US and scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama Wednesday, responded to the failure of the Saudi-Syria talks with a pledge to continue to work to maintain the peace in Lebanon, reports the Associated Press. "Despite the developments of the last few hours, we will use all possible means to keep channels open to all the Lebanese to reach solutions that guarantee stability and calm and preserve national unity," he said.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that the tribunal is expected to bring three indictments soon in its initial response to the Hariri assassination, but that additional indictments could come. The Monitor adds that while Hezbollah has emerged as the primary suspect in the initial investigation, the plot is "multi-tiered and involved a large network of people," and investigators still consider Syria, which backs Hezbollah, to be a major player in the scheme.

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