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Middle East: Lebanon's Political Future Remains Unclear

Hariri died in this blast on 14 February The leader of Lebanon's powerful Hizballah movement has warned that a complete withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon under international pressure would be dangerous. Hizballah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said such a move could lead to chaos in Lebanon, where a political vacuum has emerged following the departure of Prime Minister Omar Karami's pro-Syrian government. Meanwhile, opponents of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud fear he might use the political impasse to appoint an emergency government -- or even a military regime.

Beirut, 7 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned under pressure following the car-bomb assassination of opposition leader Rafiq Hariri on 14 February.

The opposition has responded to Karami's exit by stepping up pressure on its pro-Syrian adversaries, including President Emile Lahoud.

Syria's role in Lebanon -- in particular the issue of Syrian troops in the country -- is a major point of contention among Lebanese political leaders and citizens. Many of the opposition parties are calling for a quick withdrawal, although other political forces fear that such a move could destabilize the country.

Conservative former Prime Minister Selim Hoss is among the Lebanese politicians who say the opposition is being too tough on Syria. He said Washington and France should not pressure Syria too hard. Hoss said he had a blunt message for Washington when he met U.S. envoy David Satterfield in Beirut last week.

"We had 15 years of war. How could you [the United States] help us? How could France or the United Nations help us? They did nothing. You did nothing, and they did nothing. Only Saudi Arabia and Syria could help us in the Taif Accord, which ended the hostilities. Please don't throw us into another civil war. If any such thing should happen, God forbid, you cannot help us," Hoss said.

Opposition parliamentarian Nayla Moawadh, said members of her political group are not under the illusion that Syria will give up control in Lebanon without a fight. She also admitted that the opposition does not have a one-size-fits-all solution for how to deal with Damascus.

"We will have to find the way. It is not [a choice between] either being forceful or not forceful," she said. "It is to find the right way to reassure [the Syrians about] the future -- but [also] to be very firm on the [issue of a] withdrawal. And I think, of course, this was decided 15 years ago in Taif. In Taif, the points of the accord related to sovereignty. It is very clear. And Taif was a Lebanese consensus under Arab patronage."

The 1989 Taif Accord was brokered by Saudi Arabia. It ended nearly 15 years of civil war in Lebanon. But it also called for the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon within two years. Lebanese opposition forces in Lebanon say Syria should now do what it had promised to do 15 years ago.

The leader of the most powerful political party in Lebanon, Hizballah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is warning that the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon under international pressure could spark chaos in Lebanon. Nasrallah rejects UN Resolution 1559, which calls for the departure of all foreign troops in Lebanon. Instead, he said, the Taif Accord should be implemented fully. That accord allows for the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley.

"We consider the redeployment plan to Bekaa [Valley] a positive step and one which serves the interests of Syria and Lebanon, because we are all keen on the full implementation of Taif agreement," Nasrallah said. "If there were some issues that have blocked the implementation of this accord [in the past], we can now bypass those issues. As for the presence of Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley, [Syria and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials] refuse for this issue to be subjected to UN Resolution 1559. This [Syrian presence in the Bekaa valley] should be subject to the Taif Accord."

Nasrallah said a continued presence of Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley under the Taif Accord is necessary because "Lebanon and Syria are still in a state of war with Israel." He accused the United States and Israel of trying to divide and rule Lebanon -- and of seeking excuses for intervention by their own forces.

Political science professor Nizar Hamza of American University in Beirut said the lack of progress in forming a new government is the result of having diverse political factions that have neither engaged in sustained consultations among themselves nor met with Lebanese President Lahoud.

"There is not much time [remaining], actually, to spend on consultation. So far, there seems to be a deadlock because side talks have not really made a breakthrough. By side talks, I mean [political negotiations between] various involved factions, coalition bodies and parliamentary blocs and so forth," Hamza said.

Hamza said the lack of political consultation doesn't leave many options for President Lahoud, who is tasked with naming the next government. Hamza said the situation puts Lebanon in a dangerous and abnormal situation because Lahoud might either form an emergency government -- or even call for the formation of a military government.

Considering the mood in Beirut, the Lebanese public and political opposition are unlikely to accept any military or civilian cabinet that is not willing to meet at least some of the opposition's far-reaching demands.

President Lahoud has already rejected one of the opposition's main demands -- a call for the resignation of the country's top civilian- and military-intelligence chiefs. The opposition accuses those officials of complicity and suggests they might even have had a direct role in Hariri's assassination.