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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hizbullah, backed by Iran, pushes Lebanon to the brink

UNITED NATIONS ó Political winter has returned to Lebanon, the tiny but cosmopolitan country on the crossroads of the Middle East.


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A billboard depicting Lebanon's assassinated former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri is seen in the port city of Sidon, southern Lebanon, Jan. 1.  / Reuters/Ali Hashisho

The long shadow of Syria and Islamic Iran has again fallen over bustling Beirut and brought the Lebanese to the brink, as the militant Hizbullah movement has deliberately engineered a collapse of the countryís fragile coalition government.

Why? Because a UN inquiry is about to indict Hizbullah members for the assassination of Lebanonís popular Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, has gotten a little too close to the hidden truth about the car bomb that hit along Beirutís fashionable seaside Corniche.

Hizbullah, the powerful political and militia movement supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran, is deeply rooted among Lebanonís poor Shi'ite Muslims, about forty percent of the population.

The Party of God, Hizbullah, has nonetheless served in a coalition government with the Sunni Muslims led by Haririís son, Saad. Until now. Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah has crudely pressured Saad Hariri to disavow and discredit the UN inquiry findings. When the young Prime Minister held firm to discover the truth and honor his fatherís memory, Hizbullah ministers pulled the political plug on the government while Hariri was visiting President Barack Obama in Washington.

Just days earlier, Hariri held a nervous Sunday night meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon over the brewing crisis. Political tensions have been rising for months. A recent UN report described the situation as a ďdomestic climate of uncertainty and fragility.Ē Addressing current developments, British Foreign Secretary William Hague added succinctly, ďThis is an extremely serious development which could have grave implications for Lebanon and for regional stability.Ē

Lebanon remains the vortex of competing power interests as well as the religious and ethnic fault lines. Nestled between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea this tiny land of four million has been a political sounding board as much as a testing ground for regional conflicts. As recently as Summer 2006, Hizbullah provoked a fierce but inconclusive confrontation with neighboring Israel.

Consider for a moment that this once prosperous and very secular country stood alone as a near anomaly in the fractious Middle East. Once admired for its religious balance between an Arab Christian and Muslim community, as much as for the French colonial influence in cuisine, wines and architecture, Lebanon despite its impressive economic growth of seven percent and amazingly thriving tourist sector, could revert to a tragic mix of proxy politics, militias, based on its maze of political fault lines.

Beirut the Paris of the Middle East was long envied as a prosperous and cosmopolitan city amid the chaos of the Middle East stands at the crossroads. Alas, Beirut itself is divided among communities and could tragically disintegrate into a casbah of crazies as it was in the 1980s.

After years of ethnic and religious civil war, Lebanon may have learned its lessons, but does Damascus care? Though militarily occupied and politically dominated by neighboring Syria for almost twenty years, the situation changed after the car bomb killing of moderate Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Close cooperation between the Bush Administration and France forged the conditions possible for a return to some form of political normalcy and sovereignty free of the Syrian control.

A massive popular movement in March 2005 called the Cedar Revolution appeared to have created a proudly reborn democracy on the shores of the Mediterranean. Haririís pro-West government strove to bring Lebanon back to its roots as a commercial entrepot. Hizbullah prides itself as a radical Muslim counter-force transforming Lebanese secular society into a more Islamic mode and militarily confronting Israel.

Hizbullah militancy, reflects Islamic Iranís regional vision.

Teheranís strategy appears three-fold. On the one hand, the militias, which long ago earned a place on the USAís terrorist watch list, destabilize a Western-inclined Middle East state. Secondly the militants directly threaten Israel along Lebanonís southern border; a tinderbox separated only by United Nations peacekeepers. Third, Hizbullah tactics creates conditions to confront U.S. regional interests in a critical country.

Crucially Hizbullah through its ties to Teheran, can be manipulated into turning up the political heat inside Lebanon, tactically confronting Israel, and importantly sidetracking American and European diplomatic initiatives focused on Iranís ongoing political and nuclear machinations.

The game is on.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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