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Middle east

Lebanon’s Druze leader backs Hezbollah in quest to find new prime minister

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-01-21

Lebanon's Druze leader Walid Jumblatt says his group will support Hezbollah in picking a new prime minister, effectively giving the Shiite militant group enough clout to shut out caretaker Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

AP - A potential kingmaker in Lebanese politics threw his support Friday behind Hezbollah, a major boost to the Shiite militant group that brought down the country’s Western-backed government last week.

Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect, refused to say exactly how many lawmakers are with him, but his support is key ahead of parliamentary talks Monday to pick a new prime minister.

The announcement is the latest twist in a political crisis pitting the Syrian-backed Hezbollah against caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who said this week he will seek the premiership again.

“The party will stand firm in support of Syria and the resistance,” Jumblatt told reporters Friday, referring to Hezbollah by its popular term.

Jumblatt’s decision portends lengthy negotiations between Lebanon’s Western-backed blocs and the Hezbollah led-alliance. If those fail, Lebanon could see a resurgence of the street protests and violence that have bedeviled the country in the past.

Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran, is Lebanon’s most potent military force.

Lebanon’s crisis stems from a U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father. Many fear Hezbollah will react violently if its members are named in the court’s sealed indictment as is widely expected.

The indictment was filed Monday but its contents likely will not be made public for weeks.

Ministers from Hezbollah and its allies toppled the government on Jan. 12 after walking out when Saad Hariri refused to renounce the tribunal.

Jumblatt, who was once one of the most ardent supporters of the tribunal, launched a scathing attack on the court Friday, saying it poses a “threat to national unity and national security.”

Jumblatt’s turnaround was not entirely surprising. He has transformed himself from a close Syrian ally to a vociferous critic and back again over the years.

He joined the Western-backed camp after Hariri’s death in 2005, calling for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad and blaming Damascus for his own father’s killing in 1977.

In 2009, Jumblatt announced he was leaving the Western-backed bloc to take a neutral stance in Lebanese politics. Later that year, he reconciled with Hezbollah.

Politician Mustafa Alloush, a Hariri loyalist, said Jumblatt had succumbed to Syrian pressure.

“This of course does not justify his position,” Alloush told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. We are all under pressure.”

Sounding reserved and grave, Jumblatt said he was forced to vote with Hezbollah after a Saudi-Syrian initiative to settle the crisis had fizzled.

Revealing for the first time the contents of the failed initiative, Jumblatt said it called for scrapping Lebanon’s cooperation with the Netherlands-based tribunal, halting Lebanese funding and withdrawing Lebanese judges.

Hezbollah and its allies want that to be a priority for the next government.

Jumblatt said all sides approved the initiative before it was derailed by “international parties”  - a reference to interference by the U.S., which Hezbollah accused of pressuring Hariri.

The support of at least 65 lawmakers is required to form a government in Lebanon’s 128-seat Parliament. Hezbollah and its allies already claim 57 seats. Saad Hariri has 60.

Jumblatt, whose bloc has 11 members, refused to say whether he had secured the support of enough lawmakers to allow Hezbollah and its allies to form their own government. But he is known to have support from at least five, which would mean he needed just three more to tip the balance.

According to Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.

Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon’s population of 4 million.

In the Netherlands, the pretrial judge studying the indictment, Daniel Fransen, warned against leaks in the case.

A court decision released to the media said releasing the contents of the sealed indictment could amount to “interference with the tribunal’s administration of justice amounting to contempt.”

 

Date created : 2011-01-21

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