Rivals set for showdown in Lebanon govt crisis

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Rival parties in Lebanon on Friday prepared for a showdown over the appointment of a new premier as France proposed a "contact group" to bring the country out of its latest political crisis.

President Michel Sleiman is set to begin consultations Monday with his country's 128 parliamentarians to nominate a new prime minister, after the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allies forced the collapse of Saad Hariri's Western-backed government.

France, Lebanon's former colonial power, has meanwhile suggested the creation of an international "contact group" to negotiate a settlement to the crisis, a European diplomat in Beirut told AFP.

"The contact group would include Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States, Qatar, Turkey and possibly other countries," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The group would meet outside of Lebanon given the current tensions in the country."

Hariri, who has thus far remained silent on the collapse of his cabinet, met French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday and was in Ankara for talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday.

In a move led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, 11 ministers withdrew from Hariri's unity cabinet on Wednesday, providing the minimum number of resignations needed to automatically dissolve the government.

The walkout was the latest move in a long-running dispute over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is reportedly set to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection with the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father.

The resignations came after efforts by regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Syria to defuse tensions over the tribunal failed to find a compromise between the two rival camps.

But local politicians have begun to float the idea of reviving the Syrian-Saudi initiative.

"If both sides agree to remain on that track, then no one can compete with Hariri" for the premiership, an official close to Hezbollah told AFP.

"If they get off that track, then all options are open as far as other candidates for the premiership," he said on condition of anonymity.

In an interview with pro-Hariri daily An-Nahar, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt on Friday echoed the idea, saying there was "no escaping" the Syrian-Saudi proposal.

Officials have told AFP the pact proposed a trade-off: Hezbollah will not resort to violence if Hariri agrees to reject the STL accusations.

Nasrallah, who has made it clear he would not sit idle should any Hezbollah members be indicted, is expected to address the latest political crisis in coming days.

Ahead of Monday's consultations, Hezbollah said it would nominate a premier with "a history of resistance," but stopped short of giving names.

"We will meet on Sunday to make the decision we find appropriate," MP Abbas Hashem, a member of the Hezbollah-led parliamentary alliance, told AFP.

"We respect Saad Hariri's inability to face the crisis, seeing as he said he was not keen on holding on to premiership as he said he was not stick to lead the government."

Jumblatt's parliamentary bloc will be the first group to meet with Sleiman. The Druze leader controls 11 key votes in parliament that could make or break the next government.

Jumblatt for years had been allied with Hariri, but he moved closer to Hezbollah in 2009.

Hariri's bloc has ruled out the nomination of anyone other than the outgoing premier.

"In light of his popularity, Saad Hariri is the sole candidate for premiership," said Ghattas Khoury, an adviser to Hariri.

"All this talk of nominating someone else is a ploy to intimidate Hariri by saying he has competition and pressuring him into meeting the conditions" of the rival camp, Khoury told AFP.

"Hariri is being demanded to give up the tribunal and reject its indictments even before they are issued. This did not happen and it will not happen."

© 2011 AFP

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