Lebanon's Hariri probe at heart of Hezbollah walkout

Date: 11-12-06

by Salim Yassine

BEIRUT (AFP) - A UN probe into the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri lies at the heart of the resignations of five Shiite ministers from the Lebanese government.

Saturday's resignations of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and ally Amal ministers came two days ahead of a cabinet meeting called by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to discuss a UN document on the tribunal that will try those eventually charged for the 2005 killing.

According to the cabinet sources, matters came to a head during Saturday's meeting when Siniora anti-Syrian majority insisted on going ahead with Monday's discussions of the UN draft, which must be approved by the Lebanese government before being sent to the UN Security Council for adoption.

An ongoing United Nations probe has implicated senior officials from Syria, which for decades was the power-broker in its smaller neighbour, and Lebanese accomplices. Damascus strongly denies any connection with the Hariri killing.

Al-Manar, Hezbollah's television channel, confirmed that the issue of the international court had been behind the resignations.

"They (Siniora's anti-Syrian majority) caused the flare-up by insisting on holding Monday's exceptional meeting in violation of the constitution and the prerogatives of the president of the republic," the channel said in a political commentary Sunday.

In announcing their resignations, the five ministers accused the ruling majority of monopolising power.

"We have resigned because the majority insists on exercising power on its own," the head of the group's parliamentary bloc Mohammed Raad said, referring to the anti-Syrian majority that has baulked at forming a unity government without first having guarantees that pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud will step down.

"We don't want ministers who blindly follow the majority," Raad said. "This is about giving a warning to the majority."

According to Sunday's press, sharp exchanges took place between Raad and leaders of the anti-Syrian majority, who accused Hezbollah of playing ball with Syria in an attempt to sabotage the constitution of an international court.

The row came after the failure on Saturday of a week of talks on forming a unity government and months of political stalemate because of disputes between pro- and anti-Syrian elements in parliament.

The powerful Hezbollah movement, supported by Syria and Iran and flush from its claimed "divine victory" in the summer war with Israel, had two portfolios in the 24-minister cabinet which is dominated by anti-Syrian politicians.

Two ministers from Shiite ally Amal also resigned, along with Foreign Minister Fawzi Sallukh who is considered close to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah wants to bring in opposition allies, represented by Christian ally Michel Aoun's parliamentary group -- with 21 of parliament's 128 deputies.

It also wants a number of cabinet posts that would ensure it had a "blocking minority" -- which could stymie any attempt by the Lebanese government to ratify the international court.

Hariri, whose son Saad heads the anti-Syrian bloc, was killed in a Beirut bombing last year that sparked protests leading to the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon after almost three decades.

Theoretically, Siniora, who has refused to accept the resignations, can ignore the walkout of the Shiites as he has the two-thirds majority in the cabinet needed to approve the UN draft, legal experts say.

"But in Lebanon's consensual political system, the cabinet cannot govern without the participation of representatives of one of the country's principal communities", said political commentator Ghassan Ezze referring to the Shiites, who make up a third of the population.

Lahoud on Sunday said Siniora's government had lost constitutional legitimacy because of the resignations and that, as a result, "any cabinet meeting is anti-constitutional and worthless".

Without commenting on the likely outcome of Monday's cabinet meeting, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said priority would be given to "the continuation of the participation of the important Shiite community" in government.


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