Hezbollah threatens street protests if government rejects national unity Cabinet

Thursday, November 2, 2006

By SAM F. GHATTAS

The Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Hezbollah is threatening street protests to force early elections in Lebanon if its demands are not met for a "national unity" Cabinet that would give the militants and their allies veto power over key decisions.

The bold move reflects the Shiite group's push to consolidate the political power it gained following its self-proclaimed victory in its punishing summer war with Israel. The effort seems certain to further exacerbate an already tense political situation in Lebanon, where the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has refused earlier Hezbollah calls to step down and allow the formation of a new Cabinet.

It could also lead to violence, with pro-government groups warning of a confrontation with militants in the streets.

"Our concept of the national unity government is that all the basic forces in Lebanon be in it ... actual and serious participation, not an aesthetic participation," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, said in a lengthy interview on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV Tuesday night.

In the same interview, Nasrallah said that "serious negotiations" were taking place over the two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 capture by his militant group sparked the 34-day war.

He said a negotiator appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been meeting with Hezbollah and Israeli officials. He would not provide details about the negotiations, but told Al-Manar: "We have reached a stage of exchanging ideas, proposals or conditions."

Nasrallah also warned that any attempts by the beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah would transform the country into another Iraq or Afghanistan.

He did not elaborate.

A U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended the fighting on Aug. 14 does not give a direct mandate to the peacekeepers to take away Hezbollah's weapons by force, unless the guerrillas are caught in the buffer zone along the border with Israel.

On the domestic front, Nasrallah said Hezbollah and its allies should comprise one-third of the 24-member Cabinet. That effectively means the guerrilla group and allies could veto key decisions. A two-thirds vote in the Cabinet is needed to pass decisions that are not made by consensus. A resignation of one-third of the Cabinet automatically brings down the government.

The move, if successful, would significantly raise Hezbollah's standing in the Cabinet, where it and its Shiite ally, Amal, currently have five ministers. Such veto power and influence in decision-making would also bolster their standing in the 128-seat parliament, where the group and its allies hold less than half the seats, compared to 70 seats held by the anti-Syrian majority.

Nasrallah said he welcomed a call by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, to hold talks next week on forming a national unity government. However, should the talks fail, Nasrallah said Hezbollah would begin political and street actions against the government on Nov. 13. The guerrilla group is highly organized and politically disciplined, and its rallies frequently draw hundreds of thousands of supporters.

Saniora has repeatedly rejected the idea of a new government, contending that his Cabinet achieved much for the country and did its best to stop the war. His supporters say that Hezbollah and its backers, in pushing for greater political power, are doing Damascus' bidding and are trying to undermine the formation of an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

The assassination sparked massive street protests and prompted Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon under international pressure. The parliament, however, has lacked the strength to force pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud out of office or to eliminate Syria's proxy influence through local allies like Hezbollah.

In the face of Nasrallah's ultimatum, government supporters have threatened popular counter-protests, raising fears of a repeat of the kind of sectarian clashes between Lebanon's Sunnis, Shiites, Druse and Christians that ravaged the country during its 15-year civil war.

Leaders of Anti-Syrian factions have repeatedly warned of violence if Hezbollah suporters pour into the streets.

Walid Jumblatt, a member of parliament, was quoted by Lebanese newspapers Wednesday as warning during a visit to Washington that "threats by some forces in Lebanon to resort to street (protests) in order to bring down the government" would "lead to anarchy."

Nasrallah has played down any fears of violence in the threatened street protests, saying his campaign would be peaceful.

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