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Lebanon falls into political turmoil as government collapses

Lebanon has been thrown into a political crisis after Hezbollah ministers quit the government in protest of the UN probe into the murder of Lebanon's ex-premier Rafiq Hariri. The move could spark sectarian unrest.

Lebanese and Palestinian demonstrators hold flags of the Hezbollah, Lebanon and Palestine as they take part in a rally in front of the United Nations House in Beirut, Lebanon

Hezbollah has made its move to take power in Lebanon

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called on Prime Minister Saad Hariri Thursday to stay on as head of a caretaker cabinet, following the collapse of the government a day earlier. Eleven ministers from the Hezbollah-led March 8 opposition alliance, which is backed by Iran and Syria, tendered their resignations on Wednesday.

The political upheaval has drawn concern by the international community. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has called for a negotiated solution to the political crisis.

"I am concerned by the situation in Lebanon," Ashton said in a statement, calling on all sides to "work constructively to seek a negotiated solution to the current situation."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrapping up a five-day tour through the Gulf Arab region, said Hezbollah's attempt to undermine stability in Lebanon was bound to fail.

"Trying to bring the government down as a way to undermine the special tribunal is an abdication of responsibility, but it also will not work," Clinton said in Qatar on Wednesday.

Controversial tribunal

Hezbollah had demanded that Prime Minister Hariri, son of the murdered Rafiq, hold a cabinet meeting in which the Shiite alliance would once again call on Hariri to disavow the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Hezbollah issued their demands on Tuesday, giving the Western-backed Hariri until Wednesday to convene a meeting on the STL, which is investigating Rafiq Hariri's 2005 assassination.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri

Hariri's cabinet only held for 14 months

As Hariri was meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington to discuss Lebanon's sovereignty, independence and stability, the prime minister's presence was almost impossible to guarantee. Hezbollah subsequently claimed that their demands had not been met and went ahead with the previously threatened resignations, which brought down the coalition government.

Hezbollah has been continually pressuring Prime Minister Hariri to reject the STL, with the Shiite group claiming that it is part of a US-Israeli plot against it. Rumors have circled for months that the STL was preparing to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection with the assassination.

Disagreements over the Tribunal have crippled the government with Saad Hariri resisting calls from his opponents to ignore the STL's findings and discredit the process. With the shadow of potential indictments hanging over Hezbollah, the tensions have increased to such a level that sources within Lebanon have expressed real fears that sectarian conflict could explode should the tribunal accuse the Shiite group of the murder.

Lebanon 's future thrown into doubt

Before Wednesday's events, the potential collapse of the unity government has been stoking fears of a return to armed conflict in Lebanon and the danger of wider destabilization across the Middle East. What happens next, analysts say, is a matter of not only national, but also international concern.

"The collapse of the Lebanese governing coalition could have a significant local and regional impact," Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle. "It could bring political instability and the real threat of external military intervention in Lebanese affairs."

Ulrichsen said the Lebanese political scene was already "on the brink" owing to the impasse over how to move forward with the UN tribunal.

Israeli artillery pieces fire across the border into southern Lebanon from an Israeli position along the northern Israeli border with Lebanon near the town of Kyriat Shmona, Friday, July 14, 2006.

Israel is unlikely to allow Hezbollah to control Lebanon

"The rise to power of the March 8 Alliance could prove a tipping-point into a new conflict in Lebanon," he said.

Doreen Khoury, program manager at the Middle East Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, warned that the domestic situation in Lebanon could become very unstable with outbreaks of violence, even civil war, following the collapse of the government and the installation of the Hezbollah leadership in its place.

"If a compromise cannot be found, the March 8 opposition could name a new prime minister and form a government without representation from Saad Hariri's March 14 alliance," Khoury told Deutsche Welle. "This government would cancel funding to the Tribunal and withdraw judges, among other things."

However, such a government would be in a very precarious international and regional position, if it was not seen as legitimate in the eyes of the US, Europe, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, she added.

International concerns increase over prospect of war

Analysts believe that, should Hezbollah take control of Lebanon, war with Israel will be almost unavoidable. Israel already fought a devastating war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

"Any Hezbollah-led government would face almost certain war with Israel," Khoury said. "One scare scenario predicts that a Hezbollah-led government would be at war with Israel within weeks as Israel would most likely launch a pre-emptive attack if a March 8 government is able or allowed to form."

Ulrichsen believes that an Israeli attack on Lebanon would have potentially disastrous repercussions for the greater Middle East. An Israeli intervention against Hezbollah would also heighten the tension with Iran, he said, particularly if Tehran were perceived to counter Israeli actions by extending material or armed support to Hezbollah or other spoiler groups in Lebanon.

"Inter-regional competition between Syria and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, led by Saudi Arabia, might also intensify, and contain the seeds of further instability if each channelled support to proxy elements within the domestic Lebanese scene," Ulrichsen said.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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