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Clinton decries Hezbollah's power in Lebanon

The billionaire chosen by Hezbollah and its allies as Lebanon's prime minister called for a unity government  as U.S. Secretary of State Clinton warned that a government dominated by the group would mean changes in U.S. relation.
Image: Supporters of the Future Movement rip a
Protesters rip a poster of Lebanese MP Najib Mikati during a demonstration in support of the caretaker prime minister Saad Hariri in the Sunni bastion coastal city of Tripoli on Tuesday.Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

The billionaire businessman chosen by Hezbollah and its allies as Lebanon's prime minister called for a unity government Tuesday, a sign that the Iranian-backed militant group does not want to push its growing power too far and risk isolation abroad and an escalation of sectarian tensions at home.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that formation of a government dominated by Hezbollah would mean changes in U.S. relations with Lebanon. The militant group and its allies ousted the government backed by Washington two weeks ago when they walked out of the Cabinet.

"A Hezbollah-controlled government would clearly have an impact on our bilateral relationship with Lebanon," Clinton said. The United States deems Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has imposed sanctions against the group and its members.

The ascendancy of Hezbollah is a setback to the United States, which has provided Lebanon with $720 million in military aid since 2006 and has tried in vain to move the country firmly into a Western sphere and end the influence of Iran and Syria.

Hezbollah's opponents maintain having an Iranian proxy in control of Lebanon's government would be disastrous and lead to international isolation. The militant group has its own arsenal and is the country's most powerful military force.

Seeking to calm sectarian tensions, Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati called for a unity government.

"My hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, in order to build and not to destroy," said Mikati, whose moderate credentials and Harvard education make it difficult for opponents to cast him off as a pro-Hezbollah figure with a militant agenda.

In an interview Tuesday night on local television, Mikati said he is committed to democracy and dialogue.

"I am not in a confrontation with the West," he told the private LBC station. "We are looking to build good relations with the West."

He also rejected the notion that he is a Hezbollah candidate or that the government will be an Iranian proxy.

"Why these accusations and all this furor ahead of time? Why the prejudgments?" he said.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah echoed those sentiments.

"We do not seek power and we do not seek to govern. Our minds and hearts are somewhere else," Nasrallah said Tuesday in a televised speech. "While you go to sleep, we go to train (against Israel)."

A telecoms tycoon and former prime minister, Mikati, a 55-year-old Sunni, is seen as a neutral figure in Lebanese politics. He is a friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad and also enjoys close ties with U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

His nomination does not alter Lebanon's power-sharing system, in which the prime minister must be a Sunni, the parliament speaker a Shiite and the president must be a Christian Maronite. Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon's population of 4 million.

But the very fact that Hezbollah, a group known as much for its ties to Shiite Iran as for its hostility to Israel, chose him and secured enough lawmakers' votes to make him prime minister is enormously significant. It underscores Iran's growing influence in the region at a time when Washington's is waning.

Thousands of Mikati's fellow Sunnis poured into the streets across the country, burning tires, throwing rocks and accusing Hezbollah of a coup d'etat.

The protests were part of a "day of anger" called by loyalists of Saad al-Hariri, who is backed by Saudi Arabia and Washington, to protest the Tehran-supported party.

In the impoverished northern city of Tripoli, a hotbed of Sunni fundamentalism and Mikati's hometown, protesters torched a van belonging to Al-Jazeera, apparently accusing the Arab satellite channel of bias in favor of Hezbollah.

There were no reports of serious injuries in Tuesday's protests, which calmed by early evening.

Some observers warned that the clashes could re-ignite the country's bloody history of sectarian strife. Because Mikati is a Sunni, protesters accused him of being a traitor to his Muslim sect and betraying Saad Hariri, whose government fell after Hezbollah and its allies withdrew two weeks ago.

'Powder keg'
"This country is a powder keg, and any misstep could have unforeseeable and tragic consequences," an editorial in Tuesday's Daily Star newspaper said. "In Lebanon, a spat over a parking space or a building permit can serve as the spark of a clash that spreads beyond the control of the political class."

Hezbollah was formed in 1982 with Iranian backing to fight Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

The group is believed to have been behind the kidnappings of foreigners on the streets of Beirut and holding them hostage at the height of the country's civil war. A group thought to be the forerunner of Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in 1983.

Once seen solely as Iran's militant arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah has reinvented itself as a more conventional political movement. It has joined the government and become involved in domestic politics, but fighting Israel remains the group's priority.

A Hezbollah-led government would obviously raise tensions with Israel, which fought a devastating 34-day war against the Shiite militants in 2006 that left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead.

Hezbollah briefly took control of Beirut's streets two years later in sectarian clashes that killed 81 people, angering many who accused the militants of breaking a promise never to use its arsenal against the Lebanese.

Lebanon's political crisis has its origins in the assassination of Hariri's father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive truck bombing on Feb. 14, 2005 along with 22 others.

A U.N.-backed tribunal is widely expected to accuse Hezbollah in the crime in a sealed indictment that was issued Jan. 17.

Hezbollah has denied any link to the killing and accused the Netherlands-based tribunal of trying to frame its members at the behest of Israel and the United States.

Ministers from Hezbollah and its allies walked out of Saad Hariri's government, forcing it to collapse, after Hariri refused to renounce the court investigating his father's murder.

Appeal for restraint
In the second and final day of voting Tuesday, lawmakers gave Mikati the majority in parliament to defeat Hariri, who was prime minister from 2009 until Hezbollah forced his U.S-backed unity government to collapse two weeks ago.

After it was clear that Mikati won the support of a majority of lawmakers Tuesday, Hariri thanked people for their support but called for restraint.

"You are angry but you are responsible people. I understand your feelings," Hariri told supporters in a televised speech. "This anger should not lead us to what disagrees with our values ... our belief that democracy is our refuge."

"Sunni blood is boiling" chanted protesters in Tripoli, urging Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, to withdraw his nomination and waving flags of Hariri's Future Movement which says it will not serve in any government dominated by the militant Shi'ite group.

Hezbollah and its allies can now either form their own government, leaving Hariri and his allies to become the opposition, or it can try to persuade Hariri to join a national unity government. But Hariri has insisted he will not join a government led by a Hezbollah pick.

Sateh Noureddine of the leftist daily As-Safir newspaper said the new government will be a test for Hezbollah and the kind of movement it wants to become.

"Hezbollah ... will be held responsible, for the first time in its experience, for the burdens of politics, economy, society, culture and education and more importantly, foreign policy," he wrote. The party "will not escape being held accountable."