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Hezbollah's latest move threatens Lebanese government

BEIRUT—Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pushed Lebanon closer to a precarious political showdown Sunday by calling on his followers to prepare for peaceful street protests to bring down the U.S.-backed government.

As Nasrallah made his televised appeal, a prominent Druze leader warned that the Lebanese government was in danger being toppled by a "coup" and urged leaders to act quickly to avert a deadly new civil war.

Nasrallah's threat to take his demands to the streets came as negotiations over the composition of a new unity government are stagnating and optimism is fading that the country can avert a volatile confrontation.

"No one knows what will happen if there are protests in the street," said Zouheir Kseibati, Beirut bureau chief for the Saudi Arabia-based Al-Hayat daily newspaper. "No one can control it. It will be a disaster."

Nasrallah has been seeking to boost his political influence ever since he and his Shiite militant group Hezbollah emerged from this summer's 34-day war with Israel as heroes who'd stood up to the region's most formidable military.

Although the cease-fire deal brokered by the United Nations calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed, Nasrallah has rejected that possibility and instead sought to use his enhanced stature to topple the pro-Western Lebanese government.

Six Nasrallah allies in the current government sparked the unfolding political crisis one week ago when they abruptly resigned from the Cabinet. Their anti-government coalition is trying to force creation of a new government in which Shiites would control a third of the Cabinet seats, giving them effective veto power over major political decisions.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has thus far rejected their demand, but the pro-Western leader lost much of his political clout during the war with Israel when he proved unable to influence events.

With the backing of the United States and France, Saniora has managed to hold onto his fragile, 15-month-old coalition of Christian, Druze and Sunni politicians. But it is slowly losing ground to Nasrallah, his militia backed by Syria and Iran, and his Christian allies led by Michel Aoun.

The pro-Western coalition rose to power during the "Cedar Revolution" that forced Syrian forces from Lebanon following the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The two sides have been at odds over the creation of a United Nations tribunal to investigate the assassination that many suspect was orchestrated by top Syrian officials who have denied any role in Hariri's death.

Following the Cabinet resignations, the remaining members approved the tribunal, which is expected to be approved Monday by the United Nations Security Council. If so, it'll be brought back to the Lebanese government for another vote.

Nasrallah's allies in the government, including President Emile Lahoud, have called the Lebanese Cabinet vote illegal because it was taken without the participation of the Shiite minority.

In his speech to hundreds of followers taped Saturday and broadcast Sunday, Nasrallah said there were only two ways out of the crisis: the immediate resignation of Saniora's government or new parliamentary elections.

Nasrallah said his supporters must be "psychologically" prepared to head to the streets at a moment's notice, but was cagey about exactly when he might issue the call for demonstrations.

"We should be ready at any time to take to the streets," said Nasrallah, who derided Saniora's coalition as a puppet for American interests in the Middle East.

Saniora's government has warned Nasrallah that any street demonstrations will be illegal, raising fears of clashes between government soldiers and protesters.

Nasrallah called for peaceful protests and said a civil war was unthinkable.

But that is becoming a rising concern for some Lebanese leaders. On Sunday, Walid Jumblatt, a prominent pro-government ally, warned that anti-government forces were preparing to stage a "coup" that could drag the nation back into a deadly civil war like the one that paralyzed the country from 1975 to 1990.

Jumblatt, speaking to members of his party, said there was still time to avert a showdown, but that leaders needed to move quickly.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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