Le­banon plunges into un­cer­tainty as PM re­signs

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Zeina Karam

BEIRUT — Lebanese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri re­signed from his post in a tele­vised ad­dress from the Saudi cap­i­tal Satur­day, ac­cus­ing Hezbol­lah of tak­ing the coun­try hostage, in a sur­prise move that plunged the na­tion into un­cer­tainty amid height­ened re­gional ten­sions.

In his res­ig­na­tion speech, Hariri fired a vi­cious tirade against Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbol­lah group for what he said was their med­dling in Arab af­fairs and said that “Iran’s arms in the re­gion will be cut off.”

“The evil that Iran spreads in the re­gion will back­fire on it,” Hariri said, ac­cus­ing Tehran of spread­ing chaos, strife and de­struc­tion through­out the re­gion.

Hariri was ap­pointed prime min­is­ter in late 2016 and headed a 30-mem­ber coali­tion gov­ern­ment that in­cluded mem­bers of the Shi­ite mil­i­tant Hezbol­lah. But it’s been an un­easy part­ner­ship be­tween Hariri, who heads a Sunni-led camp loyal to Saudi Ara­bia, and Hezbol­lah, which rep­re­sents a camp loyal to Shi­ite Iran. Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun, who was elected in October 2016 af­ter more than a two-year pres­i­den­tial vac­uum, is a close ally of Hezbol­lah.

As U.S. and Saudi Ara­bia sought ways to curb Iran’s grow­ing in­flu­ence in the re­gion, Hariri has come un­der pres­sure to dis­tance him­self from the mil­i­tant group, which has sent troops to neigh­bor­ing Syria to shore up Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s forces.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear whether Hariri in­tended to re­turn to Le­banon. In a state­ment, the pres­i­den­tial of­fice said Aoun was in­formed by Hariri in a phone call of his res­ig­na­tion, adding that the pres­i­dent now awaits Hariri’s re­turn to clar­ify the cir­cum­stances of his res­ig­na­tion and pro­ceed ac­cord­ingly.

Hariri’s bomb­shell res­ig­na­tion ush­ers in a stage of deep un­cer­tainty and po­ten­tial in­sta­bil­ity. It also throws into doubt par­lia­men­tary elec­tions slated for early next year that have been re­peat­edly de­layed.

It comes amid a sharp es­ca­la­tion in Saudi rhetoric against its re­gional archri­val Iran and puts Le­banon at the cen­ter of that ri­valry.

Hazem al-Amin, a Lebanese writer who fol­lows re­gional af­fairs, said the res­ig­na­tion is “com­pletely a Saudi step” that comes in the con­text of an in­ter­na­tional and re­gional at­mos­phere against Hezbol­lah and against Ira­nian in­flu­ence in the re­gion.

“Le­banon is a frag­ile coun­try. This con­fronta­tion (be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran) is more vi­o­lent than Le­banon can stand up to,” he said, warn­ing of eco­nomic and se­cu­rity ram­i­fi­ca­tions.

Iran’s for­eign min­istry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said the res­ig­na­tion is a plot by the U.S., Is­rael and the Saudis to fo­ment ten­sions in Le­banon and the re­gion, the semiof­fi­cial Ira­nian Tas­nim news agency re­ported.

Ghasemi dis­missed Hariri’s “base­less ac­cu­sa­tions,” which he said indi­cate that “a new sce­nario” for the re­gion was be­ing drawn.

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu said Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion and com­ments “are a wake-up call to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to take ac­tion against the Ira­nian ag­gres­sion that is try­ing to turn Syria into Le­banon 2.”

“This ag­gres­sion en­dan­gers not only Is­rael but the en­tire Mid­dle East. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity needs to come to­gether and stand against this ag­gres­sion,” he said.

Hariri’s res­ig­na­tion was un­prece­dented in the way it was an­nounced, in a tele­vised ad­dress from an undis­closed lo­ca­tion in Riyadh. In his speech, Hariri sug­gested he feared for his life and said the cli­mate in the coun­try is sim­i­lar to the one that ex­isted be­fore his fa­ther, the late prime min­is­ter Rafik Hariri, was as­sas­si­nated in 2005.

Sev­eral Hezbol­lah mem­bers are be­ing tried in ab­sen­tia for the killing by a U.N.-backed tri­bunal in The Hague, Nether­lands. Hezbol­lah de­nies any in­volve­ment.

HAS­SAN AM­MAR/AP

Saad Hariri, left, an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion Satur­day, a sur­prise move amid in­creased ten­sions in the re­gion.

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