Hariri stand­off heats up

Sunday News - - WORLD -

BEIRUT Le­banese of­fi­cials are in­sist­ing on the re­turn home of Prime Min­is­ter Saad al-Hariri from Saudi Ara­bia, and the leader of mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah said the Saudis have ‘‘de­clared war’’ on Le­banon by hold­ing Hariri against his will.

The United States yes­ter­day added its voice to those urg­ing that Hariri be al­lowed to re­turn to Le­banon.

A po­lit­i­cal cri­sis has gripped the coun­try and shat­tered the rel­a­tive peace main­tained by its coali­tion gov­ern­ment ever since Hariri’s stun­ning an­nounce­ment on Novem­ber 4 from the Saudi cap­i­tal, Riyadh, that he was re­sign­ing.

The an­nounce­ment by Sau­di­aligned Hariri jolted Le­banon and thrust it back into the re­gional ri­valry be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran. The move, and ex­cep­tion­ally strong state­ments by the Saudis against Iran that fol­lowed it, have deep­ened the mys­tery about Hariri’s fate and have led to ru­mours that he is be­ing held in the king­dom against his will, de­spite his de­nials.

For the past year, Hariri has headed a coali­tion gov­ern­ment that in­cluded mem­bers of Ira­ni­an­backed Hezbol­lah. He cited med­dling in Le­banon and else­where in the re­gion by Iran and Hezbol­lah in his de­ci­sion to step down, adding that Iran’s arm into the re­gion would be ‘‘cut off’’.

Saudi Ara­bia ap­pears to want to see Le­banon headed by some­one would form a gov­ern­ment with­out Hezbol­lah, per­haps be­liev­ing Hariri has be­come too le­nient to­wards the group.

In a mes­sage ap­par­ently aimed at the Saudis but which could eas­ily in­clude Iran, US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son cau­tioned against us­ing Le­banon as ‘‘a venue for proxy con­flicts’’.

If Hariri wanted to step down, Tiller­son said, he needed to ‘‘go back to Le­banon’’ and for­mally re­sign, ‘‘so that the gov­ern­ment of Le­banon can func­tion prop­erly’’.

Le­banese Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun told Saudi Charge d’Af­faires Walid al-Bukhari yes­ter­day that the man­ner in which Hariri re­signed ‘‘was un­ac­cept­able’’, a Le­banese of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. He called for Hariri’s re­turn.

In a tele­vised speech, Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah said Hariri was be­ing de­tained in Saudi Ara­bia and that his ‘‘forced’’ res­ig­na­tion was un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause it was made ‘‘un­der duress’’.

‘‘It is clear that Saudi Ara­bia ... de­clared war on Le­banon,’’ he said.

Nas­ral­lah said he was cer­tain that Hariri was forced to re­sign as part of what he called a Saudi pol­icy of med­dling in Le­banon’s af­fairs.

Hariri was be­ing pre­vented by Saudi of­fi­cials from re­turn­ing to Le­banon, he said, adding that his de­ten­tion should not be ac­cepted.

Tiller­son said he had seen ‘‘no in­di­ca­tion’’ that Hariri was be­ing held against his will.

An of­fi­cial in French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s of­fice also said Hariri had told for­eign am­bas­sadors in Saudi Ara­bia, where he has been since the res­ig­na­tion an­nounce­ment, that he was not a pris­oner.

The French and US am­bas­sadors met with Hariri, who ‘‘says he is not a pris­oner, the (Saudi crown) prince says he is not a pris­oner,’’ said the of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rised to talk to the me­dia.

The cri­sis is widely seen as a bid by Saudi Ara­bia to wreck Le­banon’s coali­tion gov­ern­ment to try to un­der­mine and limit Iran’s in­flu­ence in the coun­try through the power that Hezbol­lah wields.

In the first con­crete ac­tion against Le­banon af­ter days of threats by Saudi gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, Saudi Ara­bia and other Gulf coun­tries or­dered their cit­i­zens to leave the coun­try amid the soar­ing ten­sions.

United Na­tions Sec­re­taryGen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res said it was es­sen­tial that Le­banon re­mained peace­ful, warn­ing that a new con­flict could have ‘‘dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences’’ for the re­gion.

Hariri’s ap­point­ment as prime min­is­ter and the for­ma­tion of a gov­ern­ment was a re­sult of a tacit agree­ment be­tween Iran and Saudi Ara­bia to side­line Le­banon from other re­gional proxy wars, par­tic­u­larly in neigh­bour­ing Syria. Iran is widely seen to have pre­vailed over mainly Sunni rebels in Syria, and with the wars in Ye­men and the cri­sis in Qatar at an im­passe, the Saudi crown prince may have de­cided to try to curb Iran’s in­flu­ence in Le­banon.

It is un­clear what Saudi Ara­bia’s long-term cal­cu­la­tion is with Hariri. So far, it ap­pears to have united the Le­banese against the king­dom, with most peo­ple REUTERS see­ing the in­ci­dent as an af­front and a hu­mil­i­a­tion for him.

Le­banese of­fi­cials are act­ing with cau­tion, in­sist­ing on Hariri’s re­turn be­fore start­ing the com­pli­cated task of form­ing a new gov­ern­ment.

Nas­ral­lah said Saudi Ara­bia had shifted its at­ten­tion to Le­banon af­ter a failed 30-month war in Ye­men and with Saudibacked rebels in Syria suf­fer­ing set­backs. ‘‘If you think that you can de­feat Le­banon, the re­sis­tance (Hezbol­lah) ... then you are wrong, mis­taken and will fail, the way you did in all are­nas,’’ he said.

With­out pro­vid­ing any proof, Nas­ral­lah said Saudi Ara­bia had asked Is­rael to at­tack Hezbol­lah in re­turn for bil­lions of dol­lars. He warned Is­rael against ‘‘mis­cal­cu­la­tion’’ or ‘‘tak­ing ad­van­tage of the sit­u­a­tion’’. AP

Posters de­pict­ing Le­banon’s Prime Min­is­ter Saad al-Hariri, who has re­signed, hang from trees along a main road in Beirut.

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