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13 May 2008 17:43
Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri pledged on Tuesday there would be no political surrender to what he called a bid by Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers to impose their will on the nation by force.
The Shi’ite Hezbollah group and its opposition allies have routed supporters of the Sunni-led government in Beirut and hills to the east in fighting that has pushed Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war.
“They simply are demanding that we surrender, they want Beirut to raise white flags ... This is impossible,” Hariri told a news conference in his first public appearance since Hezbollah swept through Sunni-dominated areas of the capital last week.
“They will not be able to obtain Saad al-Hariri’s signature ...
on a deed to surrender to the Iranian and Syrian regimes.”
Lebanon experienced its calmest day since violence broke out on May 7 after United States-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora outlawed Hezbollah’s communications network and fired Beirut airport’s security chief, who is close to the Shi’ite group.
Hezbollah said this was a declaration of war and swiftly took over much of Beirut, crushing pro-government Sunni Muslim gunmen.
Hariri’s Future TV, forced off the air during the battles, resumed broadcasting shortly before the news conference.
Hariri, son of slain ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri, said the two decisions, now a dead letter, were no threat to Hezbollah.
“This was not an attack on Hezbollah. This was a decision made by Iran and Syria to attack Lebanon, to take Lebanon over and put it in Syrian-Iranian hands,” the business magnate said.
Bitterly questioning the Shi’ite Islamist group’s promise to use its arsenal only against Israel, Hariri said: “When these same arms that came from Iran and Syria are pointed at Lebanese, it means there’s a start of maybe a civil war. We don’t want a civil war because a civil war needs two sides and we will not lead the Lebanese into a civil war.”
Arab League mediators are due in Beirut on Wednesday to try broker a solution to the political crisis that led to Lebanon’s worst internal fighting since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.
Lebanon’s army earlier stepped up patrols as part of a drive to restore order after a week of fighting in which Hezbollah and its allies triumphed in Beirut and hills to the east.
The army measures were not seen as a challenge to Hezbollah, which has avoided friction with the military—whose own composition reflects Lebanon’s volatile sectarian mix.
Wary of fragmenting its ranks, the army has stayed neutral in the conflict, which has killed 81 people, wounded 250 and raised Arab and international concern over Lebanon’s future.
Setback for US policy
Saudi Arabia said that if Iran endorsed Hezbollah’s actions it would affect the Islamic Republic’s ties with the Arab world.
“Of course, for Iran to back the coup that happened in Lebanon ... will have an impact on its relations with all Arab countries,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
In Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied his country was meddling in Lebanon.
Troops took over more positions held by Druze forces loyal to pro-government leader Walid Jumblatt, whose mountain fiefdom east of Beirut was attacked by Hezbollah on Sunday.
But in the hill resort town of Aley, a grocer named Wassim Timani, who is loyal to Jumblatt, was not sure peace would last.
“The army’s presence here is only for show. It won’t be able to do anything if the truce is violated,” he told Reuters. “We have shown it all respect but we will not hand over our guns.”
Even if the army halts all fighting, it has no plans to remove street barricades paralysing Beirut port and airport as part of the opposition campaign to press its political demands.
US President George Bush is to consult allies on how to assist Lebanon when he visits the region this week. He pledged more aid to help the Lebanese army defend the government.
Bush will travel to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, starting on Wednesday, and plans to meet Siniora in Egypt on Sunday.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hinted at a possible United Nations Security Council resolution on Lebanon.
“A resolution, which is still not entirely complete, could be proposed to the Security Council,” Kouchner told Parliament.
The government has for 18 months resisted opposition demands for veto rights in cabinet, though Hezbollah has now shown it has the military muscle to block decisions it dislikes anyway.
Political turmoil has left Lebanon without a president since November. Parliament speaker and opposition leader Nabih Berri has postponed until June 10 an assembly session called for Tuesday to elect a head of state. It was the 19th such delay. - Reuters
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