Crisis-hit Lebanon awaits UN decision on Hariri court

Date: 11-18-06

by Henri Mamarbachi

BEIRUT (AFP) - Still reeling in the aftermath of Israel's war with Hezbollah, Lebanon's crisis-hit government is awaiting an expected UN Security Council vote Monday on setting up an international court to try suspects in the murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri.

Security Council President Jorge Voto-Bernales said Thursday the body may give the green light Monday to create the court to try those suspected of Hariri's murder in a massive Beirut car bombing on February 14, 2005.

A UN probe into the murder, still under way, has implicated senior officials from Syria, which for decades was the power-broker in its smaller neighbor.

Damascus strongly denies any connection with the killing.

The tribunal has been the focus of a political crisis that led six pro-Syrian ministers to quit on November 11 after Prime Minister Fuad Siniora went ahead with a cabinet meeting to adopt the UN draft on the court.

The cabinet approved the UN document despite the resignations of all Shiite Muslim representatives in government, among them two from the powerful Syria- and Iran-backed militant movement Hezbollah.

This followed the failure of a week of national roundtable talks on forming a unity government, and months of political stalemate between the pro- and anti-Syrian camps.

Officially, the resignations were blamed on the failure to meet their demand for a "blocking minority" share in the 24-member government.

But the ruling anti-Syrian majority said the resignations formed part of a bid to block the creation of the international tribunal on the Hariri murder.

The majority has rejected the demand for a unity cabinet until it secures a pledge to remove President Emile Lahoud, whose term was extended for three years in a controversial Syrian-inspired constitutional amendment in September 2004.

The pro-Syrian opposition accuses the ruling majority of "dictatorship" and taking orders from Washington, and has threatened street protests and civil disobedience in tandem with calls for the government to resign and early elections. The majority warned it would launch counter demonstrations.

But on Friday, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi, a member of the anti-Syrian majority, said "we have no other choice but to return to the roundtable talks."

The resignations of all Shiite representatives in the cabinet prompted Hezbollah, its Christian ally Michel Aoun and Lahoud to claim that the cabinet had become unconstitutional.

Influential Shiite parliament speaker Nabih Berri and Lahoud dismissed cabinet meetings as unconstitutional for breaching Lebanon's national pact guaranteeing government representation for Lebanon's different religious communities.

Lahoud also said the government adoption of the UN draft to establish the Hariri tribunal was "not binding for the Lebanese state" because the decision was taken by an "illegitimate" government.

The ruling majority counters that the Shiite ministers were not excluded from the government, and they quit on their own initiative. Siniora has also rejected their resignations.

The escalating political crisis also triggered a rare meeting in Beirut on Thursday of the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Iran, who support the ruling majority and the Shiites respectively.

The Security Council vote comes three months after a UN-brokered ceasefire ended the 34-day war in July and August sparked by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Once the Security Council endorses the UN draft on the tribunal, the text will be sent back to Lebanon where it will have to be formally approved by parliament and ratified by Lahoud with the agreement of Siniora.


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