Lebanon’s Druze leader backs Hezbollah

Mariam Karouny – Reuters January 21, 2011

Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said on Friday his group would support Hezbollah ahead of parliamentary talks on Monday to pick a new prime minister.

Jumblatt’s support is likely to give the Shi’ite militant group and its allies, with 57 seats in parliament, the majority to endorse Sunni politician Omar Karami to form a new government which might exclude caretaker Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

But two Lebanese politicians said that regional powers might exert pressure on Lebanese leaders to reach a compromise.

“I am announcing the right political stand … by assuring the steadfastness of the group (Progressive Socialist Party) alongside Syria and the resistance,” he told a news conference.

Not all of the 11 parliamentarians in Jumblatt’s bloc belong to his party and some may not support his stance. Resistance is a term used to describe Hezbollah.

Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned from Hariri’s cabinet last week, days before a U.N.-backed tribunal issued a confidential draft indictment which is expected to accuse Hezbollah members of involvement in the killing of his father.

The Shi’ite group denies any role in the assassination and says the tribunal is serving U.S. and Israeli interests. Jumblatt described the tribunal as “a tool for destruction.”

Two days of mediation by Qatari and Turkish ministers ended in failure on Thursday and the political deadlock has raised fears of renewed sectarian conflict in Lebanon.

Jumblatt’s support is crucial to decide who forms the government, Hezbollah or Hariri, who said on Thursday he will seek the premiership. Hezbollah and its allies are determined to block his attempt.

Hariri’s coalition won a majority of the 128-seat assembly in a 2009 election, but since then Jumblatt defected and said he was neutral.

Once Syria’s ally, Jumblatt moved into the anti-Syrian camp after the 2005 killing, but he has re-positioned himself once again and last year sealed his reconciliation with Syria.

CONSULTATIONS

Analysts say excluding Hariri from a new government would cause resentment among the wider Sunni population in Lebanon who see him as their main leader, and possibly spark violence.

Another risk is angering Sunni jihadi groups, close to al Qaeda’s thinking, who see Hezbollah as an arm of Shi’ite Iran in the country which should be opposed.

Regional countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are worried about Iran’s growing influence in the region, would likely oppose such a government and seek to isolate it.

Jumblatt urged all sides to continue dialogue and warned against excluding any party.

 We’am Wahhab, a Druze politician close to Hezbollah, said he expected a government led by Karami to be formed “within days.”

“The new government will have many tasks including stopping (Lebanon’s) cooperation with the tribunal, restoring security and financial reforms,” he told Reuters.

In Lebanon’s power-sharing political system, the prime minister should be a Sunni, the president a Christian Maronite and the speaker a Shi’ite. President Michel Suleiman has called parliamentarians for consultations on Monday.

Two politicians who declined to be named said that regional countries might exert pressure on Lebanese leaders to work on a compromise, adding that Monday talks could be postponed again.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, brought down the fragile unity government of Hariri, a Sunni Muslim backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, after Riyadh and Damascus failed to reach a deal to contain tensions over the indictment.

Hezbollah and its allies accused Washington of sabotaging the Saudi-Syrian efforts by putting pressure on Hariri to stop supporting it. Hariri blamed Hezbollah for the talks’ failure.

Jumblatt said all sides had agreed in the talks to cut Lebanon’s links to the tribunal, end Lebanon’s funding for it and withdraw the Lebanese judges. He said those terms would be confirmed in a policy statement by the new government.

Hezbollah said the act of issuing the indictment on Monday marked a political turning point and no amount of international pressure would force them to accept Hariri for another term.

Lebanese officials said the group and its allies will endorse Karami to form the new government.

Karami, a pro-Syrian politician from the northern city of Tripoli, has served as prime minister twice before. He resigned two weeks after Rafik al-Hariri was killed in February 2005, amid strikes and anti-Syrian protests.

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