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The Lebanese Crisis.

The head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, on Feb. 14 was in Saudi Arabia following up on a joint Saudi-Iranian effort to solve the Lebanese crisis. His Saudi counterpart, National Security Minister Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, has been travelling constantly to help resolve the crisis which basically has been the result of hostilities between the Iran-Syria axis and a US-led alliance including the GCC, Egypt and Jordan. These hostilities also involve the ongoing sectarian war in Iraq (see ood2-IraqWTOfeb19-07).

Barely 24 hours after two bombs ripped through crowded minibuses, killing three people, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese on Feb. 14 gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square to commemorate assassinated former PM Rafiq Hariri and show support for the current anti-Syria government. Hariri was killed on Feb. 14, 2005, with 22 others in a massive blast in the city centre. His son Sa'd sounded a defiant note at the rally, saying: "Despite all the aggression, here we stand". He and other speakers emphasised their demand for an international tribunal to judge the suspects in Hariri's murder. They said this would help make Lebanon a more secure place - with the Syrian regime implicated in the murder and suspected to be behind most killings and bombings in the country.

The UN-mandated tribunal has become a point of contention between the government and the opposition, the latter being part of the Iran-Syria axis and the government being part of the US-led alliance. Government supporters say Hizbullah and its allies are trying to block the tribunal with their campaign to bring down PM Fou'ad Siniora. Even though Hariri was a Sunni Muslim, the commemoration was attended by thousands of Christians and Druze whose parties are allied with Hariri's Future Movement, now led by his son Sa'd.

The pro-West, anti-Syria government faces a challenge from an opposition led by Hizbullah which is backing the Ba'thist/Alawite dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Sa'd Hariri urged the opposition to resume political dialogue with the government.

Hizbullah's campaign to unseat the government which began in early December has fanned sectarian tensions in a country which had a civil war in 1975-90. The main fault lines run between Shi'ite supporters of Hizbullah and Sunni supporters of Hariri's Future Movement. Many government supporters who attended the commemoration said they put their trust in the Army and the security services to keep the peace in the country. The Army was out in force, with armoured personnel carriers parked next to the barbed wire barriers and fences which separated the pro-government demonstrators from the opposition activists in their makeshift camp in the city centre.

The crowd was a bit thinner than on previous occasions, as some stayed away in the wake of the Feb. 13 bombs and the continuing presence of Hizbullah demonstrators in central Beirut. But it was large enough to alarm Hizbullah strategists who saw in the surprisingly big turn-out recurring signs of Sunni-Shi'ite tensions. Shi'ite commentators on Feb. 15 said that Hizbullah should re-think its strategy of unseating the government.

The Feb. 13 bombing targetted a Christian area north of Beirut. Sunni and Christian analysts on Feb. 15 said it was important to have a large turn-out because of the rivalry between pro-government and opposition forces over the number of people they could mobilise on such occasions. The opposition had withdrawn most of its people from the camp for the occasion. One of those still there, a supporter of Christian leader Michel Aoun who has allied himself with Hizbullah and Syria, said he respected Hariri but that the problem was with his son Sa'd.

The Hizbollah supervisor of one of the opposition encampments, Zein Ba'albaki, sounded almost offended that government parties had appropriated the legacy of the former PM, saying: "Rafiq Hariri was above all this". Referring to the barbed wire separating his people from the commemoration, Ba'albaki said the barriers would disappear again one day, adding: "We will come together through dialogue".

One Druze demonstrator, Osama Ashkar from Aley, said he was there to show his support for the government. He said he wanted to express his backing for an international tribunal to judge the suspects in the murder of Hariri. The only Shi'ite VIP to address the pro-government crowd was Tyre Mufti Shaikh Ali al-Amin, who is critical of Hizbullah and emphasised the need for an international tribunal.

Assad, meanwhile, has told all Arab and Western mediators for Lebanese settlement visiting Damascus that Syria was determined to prevent the tribunal from being formed. But experts have warned that, in the event of a continuing deadlock over the tribunal, the UNSC will eventually form it under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. That would mean a grave miscalculat-ion by Assad's dictatorship.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Feb 19, 2007
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