Political crisis hits Lebanese PM

Issue 

The US-backed government of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim prime minister, Fuad Siniora, has been thrown into crisis after five Shiite cabinet ministers resigned over the November 10-11 weekend after Siniora refused to change the makeup of his government to give more cabinet posts to Hezbollah and its allies.

"The government will go", Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah told residents of Beirut's southern suburbs on November 13. Criticising the Siniora government's failure to provide adequate compensation to those who lost their homes during the massive July-August Israeli bombing campaign, Nasrallah told the residents they would soon have "a clean-handed government" to oversee reparations.

Nasrallah made his remarks a day after a sixth cabinet member, environment minister Yacoub Sarraf, a Christian, resigned. Sarraf said he was unwilling to participate in a Lebanese government devoid of Shiite representation.

The following day, President Emile Lahoud issued a statement saying Siniora's government was not legitimate because Lebanon's constitution, devised by its French colonial rulers in the 1940s, states that all of the country's religious sects "should be justly represented in the cabinet".

Of Lebanon's 18 officially recognised religious communities, Shiite Muslims are estimated to account for 40% of the country's 4 million inhabitants, while Christians and Sunni Muslims each account for around 30%.

Hezbollah has demanded that it and its allies — the most influential of which is the Christian-based secular nationalist Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by former army chief Michel Aoun — should be given one-third of the 24 cabinet posts in the Siniora-headed "national unity" government.

"Siniora", the US McClatchy news service noted on November 14, "came to power at the head of the anti-Syrian [Sunni-Christian] March 14 movement in elections more than a year ago, but his grasp on Lebanon has been slipping since last summer, when Israel, with US support, pummeled Lebanon after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers ...

" The Siniora administration ... was unable to stop Israeli planes from pounding southern Lebanon and parts of Beirut while Hezbollah fighters fought Israeli forces to a standstill and won cheers throughout the Arab world."

The FPM was a key component of last year's anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, but in February this year it formed an alliance with Hezbollah. The FPM holds 21 seats in the 128-member Lebanese parliament, while Hezbollah holds 14.

A key aim of this Hezbollah-FPM alliance is reform of the electoral law, long seen as discriminatory against Shiites.

A poll published on November 13 by the Beirut Centre for Research and Information (BCRI) found that nearly 60% of Lebanese support the Hezbollah-FPM opposition bloc. This would translate into 69 parliamentary seats, if an election were held under the existing electoral law, or up to 79 seats if it was held under a fairer electoral law.

On November 3, US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman allegedly told Aoun that Hezbollah "is constantly working on destroying and obliterating Lebanon as well as sowing chaos". The Lebanese daily As Safir quoted leading sources in the FPM as saying that Feltman also slammed the "memorandum of understanding" signed by Hezbollah and the FPM in February.

According to a survey by the BCRI, 77% of Lebanese Christians approved of the Hezbollah-FPM memorandum.

Feltman allegedly warned Aoun of "grave consequences" over his alliance with Hezbollah. The paper reported that the FPM has previously received similar threats from US officials, who have warned Aoun that unless his party ends its political alliance with Hezbollah it will be "blacklisted" for "assisting terrorists".

Both Israel and the US categorise Hezbollah as a "terrorist organisation", because Hezbollah members led the armed resistance to Israel's illegal 1982-2000 occupation of south Lebanon.

In October 1983, a truck bombing of a Beirut barracks killed 220 US marines and 21 other US military personnel. Although several other Lebanese Shiite militant groups claimed responsibility for the attack, Washington has accused Hezbollah of responsibility, even though it did not come into existence as an organisation until 1985.

Argentine prosecutors have also alleged Hezbollah members, acting on instructions from Iran, carried out a 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed. Hezbollah and Iran have denied any responsibility.

The investigations of the bombing were marred by incompetence, current President Nestor Kirchner calling them a "national disgrace" in 2005. Last month, Argentine prosecutors formally charged Iran and Hezbollah with the bombing, and called for the arrest of former Iranian president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and seven other Iranian officials.

Speaking on state radio on October 25, Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Mohammad Ali Hoseyni said the accusations were intended to divert "world attention from the perpetration of crimes by the Zionists against women and children in Palestine".