Lebanon's new Cabinet leery of Hezbollah dispute

AP News
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Posted: Nov 14, 2009 6:19 AM

Lebanon's new government, a shaky coalition of Western-backed factions and the militant Hezbollah, is unlikely to tackle the chief challenge the country faces _ a buildup of the Iranian-backed group's weapons _ even as the rockets cause sharp new tensions with neighboring Israel.

On Wednesday, Israel released documents and photos it said proved Iran was behind a shipment of weapons seized last week, which Israel claimed was bound for Hezbollah. The group has denied any links to the arms ship. The day before, the Israeli army chief told parliament members that the Shiite group now has tens of thousands of rockets stored in southern Lebanon, and could strike deep into Israel.

The U.N. resolution that ended a bitter 2006 monthlong war between Hezbollah and Israel called for Hezbollah's disarmament, something the group has strongly rejected.

The new Lebanese government formed Monday, headed by U.S.-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri and including two Hezbollah ministers, is not expected to make a major push to disarm the group.

The reason: Hezbollah's arsenal remains a divisive issue among the Lebanese, and any action by Hariri could immediately cause a crisis in his new government _ or even a renewed outbreak of the sectarian violence that tore through Beirut in spring 2008, analysts say.

"If the government moves to force Hezbollah to lay down its arms, Hezbollah will definitely resist this, something that will lead to civil unrest in the country," said Ali Hamadeh, a political analyst with the leading An-Nahar newspaper.

Instead, the Hezbollah weapons will likely remain an issue for a so-called "national dialogue." Rival Lebanese factions have been conducting such dialogue periodically the past three years. But they have so far made no progress on a defense strategy that would eventually integrate Hezbollah's weapons into the Lebanese regular armed forces.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said recently that the group has replenished its weapons stock since its 2006 conflict with Israel and now has more than 30,000 rockets.

The world's concern with Hezbollah's weapons was reflected in a White House statement Tuesday that praised the Cabinet's formation after more than four months of deadlock, but called on the government to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions that call for dismantling all militias in Lebanon.

"Had there been no Hezbollah weapons, the world would have ignored Lebanon and no one would have cared about the formation of a new Cabinet," said Ibrahim Bayram, another political analyst.

Hariri's Cabinet is the first since his Western-backed alliance narrowly defeated the Hezbollah-led coalition in June elections, enabling it to retain a slim majority in parliament.

Hariri sought to form the unity government as a way of overcoming the country's deep sectarian divisions and avoiding a repeat of last year's fighting that nearly drove Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war.

But given the major differences over both Hezbollah's weapons and political and economic reforms, "this Cabinet has a slim chance of success," said Hamadeh.

The Shiite Hezbollah has a virtual veto power over the government's moves, most analysts believe _ because if it pulls out, sectarian violence could follow.

The withdrawal of five Shiite ministers and an allied Christian minister from the previous government in late 2006 led to a fierce power struggle between the Hezbollah-led bloc and the Western-backed government.

The political standoff turned violent in May 2008 when Shiite Hezbollah militants and supporters swept through Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut to briefly seize control.

More than 80 people were killed in the sectarian violence that followed.

With most Lebanese terrified of another such occurrence, Bayram said Hariri must act to guarantee his rivals _ Hezbollah and its allies _ "real political partnership." Only if the country gains political stability embracing all factions can it begin to address tough issues like security and weapons, Bayram said.

Hariri, 39, is the son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, assassinated in a 2005 truck bombing in Beirut. Hariri's side has blamed Syria _ which also backs Hezbollah _ for his father's killing, but Syria has denied involvement.

With that history in the background, improving ties with Syria, the former power broker in Lebanon, is another tough challenge for the prime minister. Syria has been accused by pro-Western Lebanese factions of seeking to destabilize the country since it was forced to withraw its troops in 2005 after Hariri's assassination. Syria has denied the charge.

Lebanon and Syria established diplomatic relations early this year for the first time since they gained independence from France in the 1940s, but their relations are still strained.