Lebanon's national unity government collapsed Wednesday after Cabinet members from the militant group Hezbollah resigned. The move came in dramatic fashion as Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting at the White House with President Obama.
The collapse of the year-old government was prompted by a simmering feud over a U.N. investigation into the assassination almost six years ago of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, father of the current leader.
The special U.N. tribunal is expected to issue indictments soon, and by all accounts, members of Hezbollah will be implicated in Hariri's assassination in a huge bomb blast in the heart of Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005.
Hezbollah leaders have repeatedly denied involvement and warned the younger Hariri that if he did not abandon support for the tribunal, they would withdraw from the government -- a threat they carried out Wednesday after the apparent failure of mediation efforts by the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia, both of which wield considerable influence among Lebanon's diverse political factions.
Clinton: Hezbollah Move Subverts Justice
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a tour of Arab states, called the mass resignation in Beirut irresponsible.
"We view what happened today as a transparent effort by those forces inside Lebanon, as well as interests outside of Lebanon, to subvert justice and undermine Lebanon's stability and progress," she said. "Trying to bring the government down as a way to undermine the special tribunal is an abdication of the responsibility, but it also will not work."
Clinton said when all the parties, including Hezbollah, formed the unity government, they agreed to support the tribunal. She said the U.N. probe wasn't about justice only for the former prime minister, but also for many others who were killed and injured in the bombing nearly six year ago. Clinton stressed the work of the tribunal must go on, despite the collapse of the government.
"We believe that the work of the special tribunal must go forward so justice can be served and impunity ended. We believe that the leaders of Lebanon have an ongoing responsibility to serve the interests of their own people, not outside forces," she said.
The White House says President Obama delivered a similar message to Hariri during their meeting and indicated the U.S. would stand behind the Lebanese leader during "this challenging period of government volatility."
Worries Over Return Of Sectarian Unrest
Bilal Saab, a Mideast security researcher at the University of Maryland, says the resignation of the Hezbollah Cabinet members has created a dangerous situation in Lebanon.
"The situation is very much reminiscent of 2008, when we had more than 18 months of crisis between Hezbollah and the government. Everybody is worried about the return of sectarian unrest, and possibly increasing tensions between the Sunnis and the Shia in Lebanon. Nobody can really control the streets, so everybody is really going to be careful about what they do, what they say in public. This is a really very fragile situation," he says.
Saab says the situation will likely be exacerbated when results of the U.N. investigation are released and indictments are handed down. But Saab says there's really nothing any of Lebanon's factional leaders, including the prime minister, can do about that.
"To stop that train right now is absolutely ridiculous. I don't see that happening. And if we believe all the statements that Hariri has issued and all the stories that have come out of the tribunal that this is really an independent institution that is operating without any political obstacles whatsoever, he has no control over it," Saab says. "And so what comes out of the tribunal, the upcoming indictments, he's going to have to basically deal with them in his political struggle with Hezbollah."
Hariri left the U.S. soon after his meeting with Obama to deal with the growing crisis.