Lebanese coalition falls as Hizbullah and allies quit


THE LEBANESE government collapsed yesterday after a number of ministers resigned to protest at prime minister Saad Hariri’s refusal to convene the cabinet in urgent session to tackle tensions arising from the international investigation into the 2005 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri.

Energy minister Gebran Bassil, a member of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, accused the US of sabotaging Saudi-Syrian efforts to reach an accommodation.

First 10 Hizbullah and allied ministers, including Mr Bassil, quit. Then an 11th minister, Adnan Sayyed Hussein, pulled out, bringing down the unity government established following the 2009 parliamentary election.

Mr Hussein’s withdrawal is significant. He was appointed by President Michel Suleiman, who holds the balance of power in the cabinet. A former army chief, he had been trying to prevent its dissolution and maintain peace between the rival political camps.

Mr Bassil called on the president to nominate a new prime minister who could secure a majority in parliament if he receives the backing of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and others disillusioned with Mr Hariri.

Mr Jumblatt said he had been on the brink of making a major concession concerning the [international] tribunal but “dark forces” prevented him from doing so. The collapse of the government took place at the moment US president Barack Obama was meeting Mr Hariri, who cut short his visit to the US and flew to Paris to consult with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. In recent days US and French officials have urged Mr Hariri to maintain firm support for the UN-backed international tribunal, which, it is reported, could soon indict Hizbullah figures for the murder.

Hizbullah and its partners have insisted that Mr Hariri should refuse to co-operate with the UN-backed tribunal which Hizbullah contends is an “Israeli project” designed to denigrate the movement. Its secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has vehemently denied any involvement and called for the investigation of “false witnesses” who initially tried to incriminate Syria. Mr Hariri has not done so. Some of these witnesses are said to be members of his entourage.

A new government is likely to cease co-operation with the tribunal, cut its funding and withdraw three Lebanese judges, undermining its legitimacy.

The assassination of Hariri, a Sunni, by a massive bomb that also killed 22 others divided volatile Lebanon into two camps, one comprised of Sunnis and Christians and the other of Shias and Christians. The former was joined by the US and France to exert pressure on Syria to withdraw troops who have been in the country since entering as a stabilising force in 1976.

Since it emerged from French rule in 1943, Lebanon has been plagued by competing regional and western influences. The current competition is being waged between the US and France and Syria and its ally Iran. Saudi Arabia, which supported Mr Hariri, and Syria, Hizbullah’s backer, joined forces last July with the aim of rescuing the government and preventing violence.