Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lebanese factions form battle lines

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TEL AVIV -- Amid enhanced security precautions, the Lebanese parliament is meeting today in Beirut to debate the newly formed and Hezbollah-dominated government's program.

The parliament's session opens in an atmosphere of unprecedented political divide. The battle lines between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the pro-Western opposition, headed by former prime minister Saad Hariri, were never so clear.

They were drawn again Sunday evening at a meeting of the opposition at the Bristol Hotel in Beirut.

Former prime minister Fuad Siniora practically handcuffed Mikati. His message could not have been clearer: Either you arrest the four Hezbollah operatives who are accused of assassinating former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in 2005, or go.

The four Hezbollah operatives, among them Mustafa Badr el-Din, Hezbollah's head of foreign operations, were named by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was formed according to UN Security Council resolution 1757.

Hezbollah, however, made it clear that the four operatives will not be arrested -- "not even in 300 years."

In a televised speech on Saturday night, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nassrallah accused Antonio Cassese, the president of the special tribunal, of "having strong ties to Israel." He said that the prosecutor, Canadian judge Daniel Bellmarre, "has links with Western intelligence agencies" and that a CIA agent who was on mission in Lebanon "was part of Bellmarre's investigative team." Finally, he said, that "computers with their discs were sent for examination in Israeli labs."

Conclusion? The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is an "American-Zionist conspiracy" aimed at discrediting Hezbollah and, therefore, the newly formed Mikati government should not co-operate with this biased court.

Such an uncompromising position by Hezbollah is not surprising. The indictment of the four Hezbollah operatives practically means Hezbollah assassinated Rafiq Hariri.

It sharpens the debate on the legitimacy of Iranian-supplied arms. It indicates Hezbollah's "private army," which is stronger than the Lebanese army, is not intended to fight Israel but to assert Hezbollah's control of Lebanon.

Moreover, the differences over the special tribunal have deepened the split -- more than at any time in the past -- between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and between Shiite Hezbollah and all other religious groups in Lebanon.

The March 14 Coalition of Sunnis and Christians, headed by Saad Hariri, is aware, of course, of such divisions and is determined to force a showdown with the newly formed Mikati government.

It intends to vote non-confidence in the government. The group intends also to meet this week in Beirut with the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the Security Council and urge compliance with Resolution 1757. Hariri also intends to seek the support of the Arab League.

He has already won the support of Egypt. In a statement on Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammad al-Orabi said that, in view of the findings of the special tribunal, "There is no room for trade between justice and stability. Justice comes first." Al-Orabi served in the past as Egypt's deputy ambassador in Tel Aviv.

Hariri called on the international community and other Arab states to boycott the Mikati government and to isolate it politically and economically.

Israel is following very closely the developments in Beirut. Israeli officials believe Hariri's strong anti-Mikati position is aimed at isolating Hezbollah and forcing new elections in Lebanon that will bring him back to power.

With Syria embroiled in domestic unrest, its ability to come to Hezbollah's rescue has become very limited. And with Iran likely to be denied access to Lebanon via Syria, the prospect for a regime change in Lebanon is worth at least exploring.

Samuel Segev is the Free Press

Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2011 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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