Lebanon's National Unity Government Collapses As Hezbollah Pulls Out

January 12, 2011 - 9:26 AM

(Update: Lebanon's national unity government has collapsed after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned over a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The state-run National News Agency announced Wednesday that 11 ministers were stepping down from the 30-member Cabinet headed by Western-backed Saad Hariri, the slain prime minister's son. Hezbollah needed the backing of more than a third of the ministers to bring down the government.)

Beirut (AP)
- The Islamic militant group Hezbollah and its allies plan to resign from the Lebanese Cabinet on Wednesday, a move that would likely topple the government over tensions stemming from the international investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, officials said.

Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalifeh told Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV that ministers were planning to resign in the afternoon unless Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- the son of the slain leader -- agrees to their demand to convene an urgent Cabinet meeting over the tribunal crisis.

Another official allied to Hezbollah confirmed the plan, which calls for Hezbollah and its allies to resign along with one more minister who would tip the balance and force the government to fall.

Hariri, whose coalition has been sharing power with the Iranian-backed militant group, was to meet Wednesday with President Barack Obama in Washington to discuss the crisis.

A U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the elder Hariri's killing is widely expected to name members of the Hezbollah in upcoming indictments, which many fear could re-ignite hostilities between Lebanon's rival Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Hezbollah and its allies have 10 ministers in the 30-member Cabinet. An official close to Hezbollah said an 11th minister close to President Michel Suleiman would also submit his resignation.

"It all depends on the prime minister's response to our call for a Cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis," the official told The Associated Press, asking that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the matter. "We are considering our options and a resignation is top of the list."

The impending indictments already have paralyzed Lebanon's government.

Minutes after the Beirut Stock Exchange opened, the shares of the giant development company Solidere -- the largest company listed on the stock exchange -- dropped about 7 percent.

Violence has been a major concern as tensions rise in Lebanon, where Shiites, Sunnis and Christians each make up about a third of the country's four million people. In 2008, sectarian clashes killed 81 people and nearly plunged Lebanon into another civil war.

Hariri's assassination in a suicide bombing that killed 22 other people both stunned and polarized Lebanese. He was a Sunni who was a hero to his own community and backed by many Christians who sympathized with his efforts in the last few months of his life to reduce Syrian influence in the country. A string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and public figures followed, which U.N. investigators have said may have been connected to the Hariri killing.

The Netherlands-based tribunal has not said who it will indict, but Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has said he has information that members of his group will be named.

Hezbollah denied any role in the assassination and denounced the court as a conspiracy against it.

On Tuesday, officials announced that a diplomatic push by Syria and Saudi Arabia had failed to reach a deal to ease political tensions in Lebanon. There had been few details about the direction of the Syrian-Saudi initiative, but the talks were lauded as a potential Arab breakthrough, rather than a solution offered by Western powers.

Hezbollah Cabinet Minister Mohammed Fneish said Tuesday the initiative was done in by "American intervention and the inability of the other side to overcome American pressure."

The collapse prompted Wednesday's push for an emergency Cabinet meeting, even though Hariri was out of the country and planning to meet Obama. The prime minister also has met in recent days with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Saudi King Abdullah during a trip to the U.S.

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AP Writers Bassem Mroue and Elizabeth A. Kennedy contributed to this report.