Government fall plunges Lebanon into uncertainty
Jan 13, 6:49 AM (ET)
BEIRUT (AP) - 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 suffered through a devastating civil war from 1975-1990, a 1982 Israeli invasion to drive out Palestinian fighters in the south followed by a 20-year occupation of the south, a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and deadly sectarian fighting between the country's Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
The collapse of the government ushers in the worst political crisis since 2008 in one of the most volatile corners of the Middle East.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa expressed concern that Lebanon could again descend into chaos.
"It is bad. It is tense. It is threatening," he said of the situation. "All of us have to work together in order to reach some kind of compromise," he told reporters in Doha, Qatar.
Israel also said it was worried about renewed violence on its northern border with Lebanon. Israeli troops in the north of the country were on alert Thursday.
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.
The president's office said in a statement 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.
Hezbollah is supported by Syria and Iran and maintains an arsenal that far outweighs that of the national army.
At the heart of the dispute that brought down the government, Hezbollah denounces the Netherlands-based tribunal as a conspiracy by the U.S. and Israel and urging Hariri to reject any of its findings. 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.
Hariri was to hold talks in Paris on Thursday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Suleiman was expected to begin consultations over the choice of a new prime minister Thursday. He was scheduled to meet with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, after which he was to set a date to begin polling lawmakers on their choice.
There were expectations of prolonged wrangling over the choice of prime ministerEINA KARAM
Jan 13, 3:33 AM (ET)
By AMY TEIBEL
JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli troops in the north were on alert Thursday over worries that the political turmoil in Lebanon might spill over into renewed violence on their shared border, following the collapse of the Lebanese government.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group and its allies threw the already volatile Lebanon into chaos on Wednesday by pulling out of the government and causing it to collapse.
Hezbollah, which clashed with Israel in a monthlong war in 2006, bolted over the government continued cooperation with a U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hezbollah expects the tribunal to indict some of its members. It timed the dissolution of the government to coincide with the White House visit of the current prime minister, Hariri's son Saad.
A senior officer in Israel's northern command said commanders were following events in Lebanon very closely for any sign Hezbollah might try to heat up the already jittery northern border to deflect attention from the political turmoil.
However, although troops have raised their level of alert, reserves have not been called up and no regular troops have been moved north from other areas, the officer said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose military tactics.
Retired general Yaakov Amidror told Army Radio that the prevailing Israeli assessment is that Hezbollah has no interest at this point in a bruising war with Israel. Both the militant group - and more important, Iran - prefer to keep Hezbollah primed to assault Israel in the event Iran is attacked, Amidror said.
But in the current situation, Amidror said he would advise the military to "cast aside all these learned assessments from me and others" because the situation in Lebanon is so unsettled.
"Things are liable to slip out of the hands of decision-makers," he said. "You never know in such a volatile and delicate situation, where everyone has a lot of weapons, a lot of resentment, a lot of frustration - you never know where it could lead."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said late Wednesday that Israel was "closely following events but this is a strictly internal Lebanese affair."
Israel's war with Hezbollah in 2006 was touched off by a Hezbollah border raid. Israel invaded Lebanon and Hezbollah retaliated with nearly 4,000 rockets fired into northern Israel in fighting that killed around 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis, according to official counts from each side.
The Israel-Lebanon border has been largely quiet since. Hezbollah hasn't fired a rocket into Israel in the past four years - though Palestinian groups have - and the killing of an Israeli officer by Lebanese army fire in August was the military's first fatality on the frontier since 2006.
But although the U.N. truce that ended the fighting forbade Hezbollah to rearm, Israel believes the group has restocked its arsenal with even more powerful weapons.