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Druze leader Jumblatt backs Hizbollah in Lebanon

Walid Jumblatt's decision is a setback to Saad Hariri, the former prime minister who less than a day earlier confirmed that he would seek a new term in office.

BEIRUT // The Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, handed Hizbollah a major political victory yesterday, throwing his support behind the bid by the Shiite-dominated militant party to form a new government.

"The party will stand firm in support of Syria and the resistance," Mr Jumblatt told reporters, referring to Hizbollah by the label favoured by its supporters.

Mr Jumblatt's decision is a setback to Saad Hariri, the former prime minister who less than a day earlier confirmed that he would seek a new term in office.

President Michel Suleiman is set to launch formal talks Monday on creating a new government, polling legislators on their choices before nominating a prime minister. Under Lebanon's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.

Mr Hariri's refusal to withdraw the country's support for the United Nations tribunal prosecuting the assassination in 2005 of his father, the former premier Rafiq Hariri, has sparked Lebanon's latest political crisis, leading last week to the collapse of his government.

Tensions escalated further on Monday when the Netherlands-based tribunal said it had issued a sealed indictment in the case. It is widely believed here, owing partly to leaks coming from the tribunal's local office, that prosecutors have implicated members Hizbollah in the killing.

Mr Jumblatt has 11 deputies in parliament - among them five Christians and a Sunni - but he refused to say yesterday whether he had secured the support of enough lawmakers to allow Hizbollah and its allies to form a government.

A candidate needs the support of at least 65 legislators to form a government in Lebanon's 128-seat Parliament. Hizbollah and its allies can claim 57 seats. Mr Hariri, currently serving as caretaker premier, has 60.

The choice by Mr Jumblatt to back Hizbollah is yet another turn in the deepening struggle between the Saudi- and Western-backed Mr Hariri and the Iranian-and Syrian-backed Hizbollah, which has so far proved immune to outside mediation.

As the situation deteriorated over the past months, Riyadh and Damascus tried to forge a compromise palatable to both sides. Their efforts collapsed last week when the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, said the Saudi king had decided to "withdraw his hand" from Lebanon. This week, a joint Turkish-Qatari diplomatic mission also crumbled.

On returning to Ankara from Beirut on Thursday, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said an agreement among the Lebanese is unlikely "due to some reservations." Analysts speculated that both sides balked and that the solutions proposed by the Turkish-Qatari visit were largely based on the failed Saudi-Syrian initiative.

"Why would one expect that the Qataris and the Turks could do what the Saudis and Syrians couldn't?" asked Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Mr Hariri has been left increasingly vulnerable. Since returning from a state tour of foreign countries during which his government collapsed, he has been the target of a negative campaign by his political foes led by Hassan Nasrallah.

The leader of Hizbollah spent much of a televised speech on Sunday outlining how Mr Hariri is not fit for office. In addition, leaked tribunal recordings dating from 2007 and aired on a Lebanese television station sympathetic to Hizbollah last weekend feature Mr Hariri slighting Lebanese politicians and calling Syrian President Bashar Assad "an idiot," were aired on Lebanese television last weekend.

With regional mediation efforts stalled, key Western allies are moving hastily to fill the vacuum. In consultation with the governments of Germany and the United States, France is establishing a "contact group" to help steer Lebanon to compromise. Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, predicted the initiative would make little headway.

"All the Lebanese political actors are posturing right now - taking a position and holding it," Mr Atallah said. "The situation is not ripe [for intervention to work] and it won't be ripe until the indictments come out and we see how each actor reacts to it."

The chief beneficiary of the current crisis is Syria, Mr Khashan and other analysts suggested. If so, that would represent a dramatic turn-around for Syria, which was forced by international pressure after Hariri's assassination to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and end nearly three decades of tight control over the country's affairs.

In recent months, Mr Hariri and his coalition have softened their public statements about Syria. More significantly in the current political crisis, Syria has managed to win over Mr Jumblatt, once a sworn enemy.

Now, Mr Jumblatt has effectively become a kingmaker in the contest to form a new government. Earlier in the week, he hinted at the direction he would go, travelling to Damascus for talks with Syrian officials and telling reporters that backing Mr Hariri for renomination as prime minister would have "catastrophic consequences".

Mr Khashan, the political science professor at the American University in Beirut, described events in Beirut this week as "the Hizbollah-led opposition leading a coup".

"They are trying to stage a bloodless coup by nominating a prime minister that represents the opposition."


* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse