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The Daily Star - December 20, 2010

UK warns deadlock in Lebanon over tribunal could soon erupt into violence

by Hussein Dakroub

Saudi Arabia and Syria are scrambling to reach a compromise to defuse rising political tension before an impending indictment into former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination is issued as Britain warned of violence in Lebanon next month.

“The Saudi-Syrian bid is making progress toward reaching a major compromise before the indictment is issued,” a source close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told The Daily Star Sunday night.

Beirut MP Ammar Houri, a member of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future parliamentary bloc, also struck an upbeat note about the outcome of the Riyadh-Damascus cooperation to resolve the crisis over the indictment, saying the two countries’ efforts are expected to achieve “fruitful results.”

Amid hopes of a breakthrough in the Saudi-Syrian bid, Britain warned that the Lebanese deadlock over the indictment, which is widely expected to implicate some Hizbullah members, might erupt into violence.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News Sunday that Lebanon “is one of our concerns over the coming weeks.”

“We think it’s very important that [the] tribunal does its work,” he said, referring to the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which will prosecute suspects in Hariri’s assassination.

Lebanon and Sudan are the “two areas in January that are most obvious at this stage to watch for a political crisis or an outbreak of violence,” Hague said, referring also to the January 9 referendum on South Sudan independence. “So across the international community we must be ready to do everything we can to assist with those countries,” he said.

Hague’s remarks conform with reports that the indictment, that was widely expected to be released this month, has now been postponed until next month.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in an interview Friday that the postponement of the indictment is linked to a new approach in US policy aimed to defuse political tensions with Iran and other tension spots, including Lebanon.

The STL’s registrar Herman von Hebel told journalists at the court’s headquarters in the Netherlands December 9 that the office of the tribunal’s prosecutor Daniel Bellemare will send a draft indictment to the pre-trial judge for confirmation “very, very soon.”

The report about the looming indictment has heightened political tension in the country and led to a Cabinet paralysis and a split between the March 8 and March 14 factions over the indictment and the controversial issue of “false witnesses” before the STL.

The Cabinet failed to settle this issue during its latest meeting Wednesday, prompting President Michel Sleiman to defer the discussions when the ministers of the March 8 alliance demanded a vote on the issue that has crippled the government’s work since November 10.

Hizbullah and its allies in the March 8 alliance have demanded that Cabinet acts on this issue, either by consensus or by a vote by referring it to the Judicial Council, the country’s highest court. This demand was rejected by March 14 factions which fear that investigating “false witnesses” by the Judicial Council would eventually obstruct the STL’s work.

Houri said in remarks published Sunday that the Saudi-Syria mediation bid is making progress. In an interview with Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, Houri also said that efforts are under way to convene the Cabinet before the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Asked to comment on the results of the Saudi-Syrian bid, Houri said, “This bid is going on and is heading in the right direction. It has made progress and is heading in a way to achieve fruitful results that will reflect positively on stability in Lebanon and on relations among internal political parties.”

He said that Hariri told a meeting of the Future bloc last Friday that he will consult with Sleiman on the possibility of convening the Cabinet before the holidays to discuss urgent issues, including people’s living conditions.

Speaker Berri, part of the March 8 camp, accused the March 14 factions of crippling the government’s work by refusing to vote on referring the issue of “false witnesses” to the Judicial Council. In an interview with the Iranian news agency IRNA, Berri said that it was agreed to devote last Wednesday’s Cabinet session to discussing the issue of “false witnesses” either by consensus or by a vote.

“When consensus could not be reached, the president wanted to avoid this matter by discussing other items [on the agenda]. The Constitution provides for contentious issues to be put to a vote … When the opposition [March 8] ministers proposed putting the issue to a vote, this proposal was rejected and they are still rejecting it,” Berri said.

Berri added that the current crisis over the indictment is “a blackmail operation by some big powers abroad and is also being exploited in the interior to serve interests and purposes of which we are aware.”

Meanwhile, Hizbullah, which has warned that time was running out for the Saudi-Syrian bid to break the deadlock over the indictment, is giving rival factions more time to reach an agreement to protect Lebanon against the threat of strife.

“We want an understanding that protects the country from the evil of strife to which the Israelis are trying to drag some [Lebanese factions]. Therefore, we are extending time again and again in order to see an understanding is born before the [Israeli] enemy, through its tools in the international tribunal and its procedures, acts to fabricate an indictment [based on] forgery, misleading, lies and hollow allegations,” MP Mohammed Raad, head of Hizbullah’s parliamentary bloc, told an Ashura event procession in the southern market town of Nabatiyeh.

Raad said the indictment was aimed at undermining Lebanon’s national peace and stability. Rather than serving Lebanon’s unity, independence and sovereignty, this indictment serves “the interest of the Israeli enemy and the American project in Lebanon and the region,” he said.

Raad added that Hizbullah, which has dismissed the STL as an “American-Israeli” tool to incite strife, is extending its hands to the March 14 factions to save the country.

“Hizbullah’s aim is to save this country from an international conspiracy that seeks to enslave and humiliate the Lebanese, control their resources and tamper with their future,” he said. “Our hands are extended to anyone who shares these aims with us.”

Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir said he hoped that next year would be “a good year of prosperity for all the Lebanese.”

“We implore God that the next year will be better than past years and that all obstacles will be eliminated so that people can live in peace and calm,” Sfeir told visitors in a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency (NNA).

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the Lebanese were capable of warding off the threat of strife. “The Lebanese are keen on preventing strife,” Siniora said, as reported by the NNA. “Any act that leads to the use of offensive words or remarks that lead to sectarian tensions is rejected.”

In tandem with the Saudi-Syrian efforts, Siniora, also the leader of the parliamentary Future bloc, said that rival Lebanese factions should sit together and talk to each other in order to solve the crisis over the indictment.

“The Arab efforts, exerted by brotherly Syria, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Qatar or by the Arab League, are appreciated and supported, but they will not replace the Lebanese efforts which are the essential efforts,” he said.

Siniora indirectly blamed March 8 factions for crippling the work of the government and other state institutions, saying that the Cabinet must not be taken “hostage.”

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