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Lebanon's 'Unity' Government Collapses As Hizballah Ministers, Allies Resign

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) meets with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in Washington today.

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) meets with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in Washington today.

Lebanon is in the throes of political crisis after 11 members of the country's 14-month-old "unity" government resigned.

The resignations by Hizballah ministers and their political allies automatically forces the collapse of the government, as under Lebanese law, the government automatically fails if more than one-third of its 30 ministers step down.

The resignations come after the failure of efforts by Saudi Arabia and Syria to forge a deal that would reduce tensions over a UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of then-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Energy Minister Gebran Bassil told a press conference in Beirut on January 12 that 11 ministers from the 30-member cabinet had tendered their resignations because of a long-running dispute with Hariri -- the son of the slain leader -- over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Bassil, a member of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement close to Hizballah, has also asked Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to name a new prime minister.

Tensions Over Tribunal

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to issue indictments later this month against members of Hizballah in connection with the assassination. Hizballah, a Shi'ite group backed by Iran and Syria, denies any role in the killing.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken in recent days with officials in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and France in a bid to reach an international consensus about supporting Lebanon and the tribunal.

A senior U.S. government official aboard Clinton's plane told reporters as the aircraft landed in Qatar that Clinton also was talking to "others" but did not specify who they were.

Hizballah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has criticized the tribunal, alleging that it is an "Israeli project." Nasrallah has called on the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to denounce the tribunal and withdraw all cooperation with it.

But Hariri has rejected Nasrallah's demand. The stalemate has crippled Harari's 14-month-old government -- a 30-member cabinet that was comprised of 15 ministers from Hariri's coalition, 10 from Hizballah and other opposition groups, and five who were appointed by Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman.

Hariri In Washington

Hariri, who is supported by Western powers and Saudi Arabia, was meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama to discuss the political tensions in Lebanon over the tribunal’s work when the resignations of the ministers was announced.

The leaders cut their meeting short and the Lebanese prime minister departed Washington for Paris, where he was expected to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy before returning to Beirut.

A statement issued by the White House reaffirmed U.S. support for Hariri and said that Hizballah’s efforts to derail the government "only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government's ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people."

According to the statement, Obama also stressed the role of the UN-backed tribunal's work as a "means to help end the era of political assassinations with impunity in Lebanon" -- work that should continue "unimpeded by third parties."

On January 10, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had expressed concern about what she called "efforts to destabilize Lebanon" because of the probe into Hariri's killing.

Speaking during a television interview in Abu Dhabi, Clinton said all sides need to do everything they can to ensure that Lebanon's political crisis doesn't escalate into a regional conflict.

Before the resignation of the Hizballah ministers was announced, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal warned that such a move could lead to clashes and could become "a big threat for the Middle East."

While the citizens of Lebanon have reacted with concern at the collapse of the government, some, like Zeina Bayram, a resident of Beirut who spoke to Reuters, hold out hope that conflict can be averted.

"Now the economy will be affected and tourists will stop visiting and I don't know, maybe even we'll have war," she said. "God forbid that. I think the Lebanese are smart enough to avoid a disaster like this."

compiled from agency reports