Iran-backed Hezbollah on Sunday blamed U.S. interference for the Lebanese parliament’s inability to elect a president and added a new condition for choosing the next head of state: The leader must support the powerful Shiite Muslim group’s fight against Israel.
Hezbollah’s demand is bound to further complicate efforts to elect a new president to replace Emile Lahoud, who stepped down midnight Friday, plunging the crisis-ridden country into a dangerous power vacuum after rival factions failed to agree on a successor.
“We want a president who believes in national participation and in the right to defend one’s land and protect its people,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, said in a speech in south Beirut.
Hezbollah fought a guerrilla war against Israel’s 18-year occupation of a border strip in southern Lebanon that ended in 2000. It sparked a 34-day war with Israel in the summer of 2006 after it killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others in a cross-border raid.
While Lebanon’s U.S.-backed government does not have relations with Israel, it also does not seek to provoke fighting between the two countries.
Months of political haggling between Lebanon’s rival politicians failed to find a compromise presidential candidate to succeed Lahoud, intensifying fears of street violence between Prime Minister Fuad Saniora’s Western-backed government and the opposition led by Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria.
The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of Syria during his nine years in office, was a long-sought goal of the government installed by the majority in parliament who oppose Syria’s influence in Lebanon. The government has been trying to put one of its own in the post and seal the end of Syrian dominance of Lebanon.
But Hezbollah and its opposition allies have been able to stymie the government’s hopes by repeatedly boycotting parliamentary votes for a new president, as they did on Friday, leaving it without the required quorum. A new parliament session to elect a president has been set for Nov. 30.
Opposition considers parliament illegal
In the absence of a president, Saniora’s cabinet, which the opposition considers illegitimate, takes on executive power under the constitution.
“This government is illegitimate and unconstitutional. It doesn’t exist, so it can’t rule and it can’t exercise the role of the presidency,” Kassem said Sunday.
He also blamed U.S. “interference” for the lack of consensus in Lebanon.
“American interference, through which they tried to dictate conditions (for the new president), is what blocked the consensus and kept the elections from being held on time,” he said.
The United States has said the new Lebanese president must be committed to implementation of international demands, a reference to U.N. Security Council resolutions that call for disarming Hezbollah, which Washington labels a terrorist organization.
But Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah earlier this month vowed to keep the group’s weapons, saying no army in the world can disarm Hezbollah.
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 following Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Some in Lebanon accuse Syria of being behind the killing — a charge Damascus denies.