x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Hizbollah in 'coup rehearsal'

The Lebanese Shiite movement plans to overthrow the government in case any of its members are implicated in Rafiq Hariri's killing, a report in a Beirut newspaper has said.

The Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah has rehearsed plans to overthrow the government in the event of any of its members being formally implicated in the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a Beirut newspaper sympathetic with the group reported yesterday.

Before Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, denounced the United Nations tribunal investigating the murder in a speech last month, an "opposition group" was carrying out electronic and field drills for "an assumed zero hour", alAkhbar quoted unnamed sources as saying.

The field drill, which was carried out in less than two hours, was "designed to hold a security and military grip on large areas of the country and a number of targets therein, including political, security and military figures", the newspaper reported.

The coup plot calls for locating officials and arresting them "in order to curtail their movement and get hold of major cities in Lebanon", the paper said. None of the report's claims could be independently confirmed.

Tensions have been running high in Lebanon in recent weeks as the UN tribunal is rumoured to be preparing to hand down indictments in the case. Mr Nasrallah last week warned Lebanon against cooperating with the investigation. Syria has also denounced the tribunal.

The coup report came as the top US diplomat for the Middle East told the Washington Post that Syria needs to pressure Iran and Hizbollah to rein in their activities in Lebanon if it wants to rebuild relations with the United States.

"Syria and the United States have taken some modest steps to see if we can improve the bilateral relationship," said Jeffrey D Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. "But this cannot go very far as long as Syria's friends are undermining stability in Lebanon. We have made that absolutely clear to the Syrians. There is a cost to the potential in our bilateral relationship to what Syria's friends are doing in Lebanon."

There are growing concerns about Lebanon's political stability. The coalition government of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq, appears fragile. Meanwhile, a triumphal visit to Lebanon last month by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made a provocative tour of the border with Israel, has alarmed some in the region.

Mr Feltman's comments came just days after the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, lashed out at Washington, accusing it of sowing chaos across the world. "Is Afghanistan stable? Is Somalia stable? Did they bring stability to Lebanon in 1983?" Mr Assad said in an interview with al Hayat newspaper, referring to US intervention in Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

The Obama administration has dispatched numerous envoys to meet Mr Assad in an effort to wean him away from the Iranian camp and to draw him into peace talks with Israel. Mr Feltman discounted Iranian influence on Syria, saying that unless Damascus mends relations with Washington, it has no chance of winning the return of the Golan Heights, which was seized by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

"Syria has said that it wishes to have its territorial expectations met through a peace agreement with Israel and that Syria recognizes the essential role that we can play in achieving that," Mr Feltman said. "So this suggests to me that Syria is in fact interested in a better relationship with us. But our interest in a comprehensive peace doesn't mean that we are going to start trading our other interests in Iraq or Lebanon in order to get Damascus to like us better."

Mr Feltman said the administration is "deeply concerned" about Lebanon. He described his recent visit there as a show of support for the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, and a reaffirmation of US support for the tribunal's work. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, also recently called Mr Suleiman, who has the difficult job of managing Lebanon's deeply polarised political space.

Mr Feltman said that given such divisions, it was important for the United States and others "to show there is not a vacuum on the other side" and support the viability of the Lebanese state. "No matter how much Hezbollah huffs and puffs, the special tribunal for Lebanon's work continues," he said.

* With reporting by the Washington Post