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Hizbollah gains political clout in Lebanon

Focus on tribunal investigating assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister wanes as many watch growth of Hizbollah's political influence with concern.

BEIRUT // The uproar surrounding the indictments handed down by the United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri overshadows a profound change inside the Lebanon. For the first time since that blast in the centre of Beirut, Hizbollah and Syria's other political friends in Lebanon hold sway.

Hizbollah and its allies brought down the national unity coalition of Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son, in January, ostensibly over the issue of cooperation with the tribunal. It took their anointed candidate for prime minister, Najib Mikati, until June to form his government.

Today, due partly to Lebanon's skewed political system that favours Christian representation, Hizbollah neither has a majority in parliament nor in the new government. Nevertheless, it is clear to most Lebanese that the influence of the heavily armed and popular movement is pervasive.

As a result, the debates in parliament and the country's media are slowly shifting away from a focus on the tribunal to the changes that a new government could introduce. Also, there is much anecdotal evidence of increased scrutiny of westerners entering and leaving the country.

Not surprisingly, the United States and Israel, long-standing foes of Hizbollah, are looking at developments in Lebanon with increased concern, with the US Congress considering a cut-off of US military aid to Beirut.

According to Lebanese economic, banking and real estate experts, Arab Gulf countries - notably Saudi Arabia - are worried over Hizbollah's expanding political role in Lebanon, too. They were strong supporters of the previous government. Now, many Gulf companies and investors are hesitant

Nabil Itani, the head of Lebanon's investment authority, IDAL, says the impact the impact of shifting political sands in Lebanon should not be exaggerated. It is far less significant in the minds of investors, he said, than the upheaval shaking all of the Arab world.

Mr Itani acknowledged, however, that, "investment and flow of money may be, may be, affected with the political orientation" in Lebanon.

Others are more blunt. One real estate consultant said that the interest of Gulf clients in Lebanon had dropped, adding: "Especially Saudis are not feeling comfortable."

The hand-wringing of the Saudis is not surprising, given that the long-running conflict between Lebanon's two main blocs, Mr Hariri's March 14 movement and the Hizbollah-dominated March 8 movement, is also a regional contest pitting Riyadh and its western allies against Hizbollah's backers Syria and Iran.

Yet with revolutions rocking established regimes and with neighbouring Syria in turmoil, Saudi Arabia is treading carefully. Late Monday, King Abdullah took the unusual step of calling for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and ordering home Riyadh's ambassador to Damascus. Kuwait and Bahrain swiftly followed suit.

In Lebanon, however, the Saudi government has urged its Lebanese allies to refrain from exploiting the troubles of its next door neighbour for domestic gain.

Paul Salem, of the Carnegie Centre in Beirut, said that the Saudis were sending a message to Mr Hariri and his supporters: "We don't want trouble in Lebanon now. You can protest, you can oppose, you can be loud against Hizbollah but no trouble because trouble might mean chaos and violence or trouble might mean trouble for Syria, because this is a Syrian-controlled government."

To underscore the message, Riyadh reduced its aid to Mr Hariri and his Sunni-dominated Future movement, the leading component of the March 14 bloc, according to one member of parliament who belongs to the Future bloc.

Mohamed Kabbani recently confirmed that the money flow from the kingdom had slowed to a trickle since the beginning of the year, "to the movement and to Saad Hariri".

Although no elections are imminent, the movement's ability to organise may be affected. "If this continues for a long time, it can cause serious problems," Mr Kabbani said.

Poised to play a key role in how developments in post-indictment Lebanon play out is the new prime minister, Najib Mikati. A billionaire even richer than Mr Hariri, Mr Mikati owes his position to the support of Hizbollah. He also has extensive Saudi connections.

Talal Atrissi, a political scientist who studies Hizbollah, said, "Saudi Arabia did not say anything negative about the government or anything positive about the tribunal. . . . Maybe they will support Mikati and consider him bigger than Hariri. Maybe Mikati will be the Saudis' man in Lebanon."

By accepting the premiership of the Hizbollah-backed Mr Mikati, it appears that at least for now, Riyadh is bowing to the inevitable.



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