BEIRUT, Lebanon—Lebanon's political crisis deepened on Tuesday with U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora fighting to save his government and the leader of the powerful Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah predicting its collapse.
"The government will go," Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told supporters, according to an account published Tuesday in a Lebanese newspaper.
The Bush administration last year hailed Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" as evidence that democracy was on the march in the Arab world. The Saniora government's collapse would confound U.S. efforts to isolate and weaken Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's main international supporters.
Six Cabinet ministers allied with Hezbollah quit over the weekend after Saniora refused to change the makeup of his government to give more seats to Shiite Muslim and pro-Syria factions. The change would have given those groups veto power over government proposals.
The remaining ministers met in emergency session on Tuesday, pledging to hang together and anxiously awaiting the return from Iran of Lebanese Shiite leader Nabih Berri, who often acts as an intermediary between Hezbollah and pro-government forces.
Several Lebanese officials said they hoped that Berri could help start a round of talks before the fight moves to the streets. Both sides are threatening to call for dueling rallies later this week.
Saniora came to power at the head of the anti-Syrian March 14 movement in elections more than a year ago, but his grasp on Lebanon has been slipping since last summer, when Israel, with U.S. support, pummeled Lebanon after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.
Last week, U.S. officials said they'd gathered "mounting evidence" of a plot by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah to topple Saniora's fragile democratic government, but they didn't divulge any specifics and U.S. intelligence officials said there was no evidence of a planned coup or military uprising.
Lebanese officials, meanwhile, fear that Nasrallah's demands for a bigger Shiite role in the government could drag this tiny Mediterranean nation into another round of civil unrest. A costly 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
"Nasrallah's comments are not reassuring, and they are increasing tensions in the streets, particularly that we are hearing about the opposition's preparations to demonstrate," said Nabil de Freij, a Christian lawmaker and Saniora ally. "I hope the government will show that it has popularity and that it can resist all attempts to undermine its achievements."
The Saniora administration took a beating during last summer's war, in which his government was unable to stop Israeli planes from pounding southern Lebanon and parts of Beirut while Hezbollah fighters fought Israeli forces to a standstill and won cheers throughout the Arab world.
The war ended in August with a cease-fire agreement brokered by the United Nations; Nasrallah dubbed the outcome a "divine victory." Ever since, Hezbollah and its allies have sought to oust Saniora and other opponents in hopes of building what Nasrallah described as a "clean" government, according to quotes attributed to him in the As-Safir newspaper on Tuesday.
"They are threatening to change the government, while they know that constitutionally, they do not have the majority in the government or parliament to do so," complained Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni legislator from Saniora's bloc.
The United States has backed Saniora since he swept to office last year at the head of the March 14 movement, a coalition of mostly Christian and Sunni Muslim factions named to commemorate a massive anti-Syrian demonstration that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Syrian security forces, which occupied Lebanon at the time, have been widely blamed for Hariri's death in a car bombing that also claimed 22 other lives. Damascus denied involvement, but a U.N. investigation concluded that Syrian officials were likely involved.
The latest conflict came to a head over the weekend when talks broke down over a Hezbollah demand for a Cabinet reshuffle that would have given the organization effective veto power. Six Hezbollah and allied ministers resigned. Anti-Syrian leaders charged that the walkout was meant to prevent the formation of a special tribunal to prosecute Hariri's suspected killers.
With the pro-Syrian members absent, the Lebanese Cabinet on Monday approved U.N. plans for the Hariri tribunal. Lebanon's Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, issued a statement Tuesday calling the decision illegitimate because he hadn't approved it.
Saniora called the proceedings constitutional and told the Reuters news agency that his government is facing a "tyranny of the minority."
"If the government resigns, it means that the March 14 forces have lost their power, which is something they would not accept," said Nawaf Kabbara, a professor of political and cultural studies at Balamand University in northern Lebanon.
But Kabbara said he doubts that either side is ready for violence.
"Even if the opposition decides to organize demonstrations, they will use these demonstrations for negotiation with the majority," he said.
(Allam reported from Amman, Jordan; McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Raad reported from Beirut.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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