Lebanon: tense calm after protests

Lebanon: tense calm after protests

Lebanon’s Hezbullah supporters gesture as they listen to their leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah through a screen during a ritual mourning for Imam Hussein.

January 27, 2011, Thursday/ 17:26:00

Lebanon’s new Hezbullah-backed prime minister began the process of forming a new Cabinet on Wednesday, as calm returned to the country after two days of protests against the Iranian-backed militant group’s growing influence.

Police and army troops opened all roads and removed barriers across the nation, while Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati took the first step in forming a new Cabinet by visiting former prime ministers. Hezbullah and its allies ousted the Western-backed government two weeks ago when they quit the Cabinet.

Mikati, a billionaire businessman and Harvard graduate, has called for a unity government that would bring together Lebanon’s diverse society. Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri has insisted he will not join a government led by a Hezbullah pick.

But the fact that Hezbullah, a group known as much for its ties to Shiite Iran as for its hostility to Israel, chose Mikati and secured enough backing in parliament to make him prime minister underscores Tehran’s growing influence in the region at a time when Washington’s is waning.

Sunnis angry

Wary of Hezbullah’s position, thousands of Sunnis poured into the streets across Lebanon over the past two days, burning tires, throwing rocks and accusing the militant group of a coup d’etat. Some of the most intense protests Tuesday took place in the northern city of Tripoli, a hotbed of Sunni fundamentalism and Mikati’s hometown. On Wednesday, traffic had returned to normal and schools and shops had opened. Two armored personnel carriers and several soldiers stood guard nearby.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry advised its citizens on Wednesday to avoid traveling to Lebanon “until clam and stability return.” Saudi Arabia, the Sunni power in the region, is a strong backer of Hariri, who also holds Saudi citizenship.

Opponents of Hezbullah, which has its own arsenal and is the country’s most powerful military force, maintain that having an Iranian proxy at the helm of Lebanon’s government would be disastrous and lead to international isolation.

Hariri’s Future Movement placed banners in Tripoli that accused Mikati of being given a “religious assignment” by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- the spiritual leader for many Hezbullah members, including the group’s chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. But both Hezbullah and Mikati are calling for a government that includes all of Lebanon’s political factions, a sign that the militant group does not want to push its growing power too far and risk isolation abroad and an escalation of sectarian tensions at home.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that formation of a government dominated by Hezbullah would mean changes in US relations with Lebanon.

Lebanon’s political crisis has its origins in the assassination of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive truck bombing on Feb. 14, 2005 along with 22 others. A UN-backed tribunal is widely expected to accuse Hezbullah in the crime in a sealed indictment that was issued Jan. 17. Hezbullah has denied any link to the killing.

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