BEIRUT — Lebanon's unity government looked set to collapse on Wednesday after the powerful Hezbollah and its allies threatened to walk out over a UN probe into the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Health Minister Mohamad Jawad Khalifeh, whose Amal party is allied with Hezbollah, said 11 ministers would tender their resignations Wednesday afternoon unless the cabinet convenes to discuss a long-running standoff over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
"If the cabinet fails to meet, it means there is no government and as such 11 ministers will tender their resignations this afternoon," Khalifeh told AFP.
The Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allies have for months been pressing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain former premier, to disavow the STL on grounds it is part of a US-Israeli plot.
Hezbollah's camp, which is backed by Iran and Syria, on Tuesday gave the Western-backed Hariri, who is in Washington, until Wednesday to convene a cabinet meeting on the tribunal.
According to unconfirmed press reports, the STL is set to indict senior Hezbollah members in connection with Rafiq Hariri's 2005 assassination, a scenario the militant party vehemently rejects.
Environment Minister Mohammad Rahhal, who is close to Hariri, told AFP Hezbollah's threat to topple the government was aimed at paralysing the state and forcing the premier to disavow the tribunal.
"The scenarios put forth earlier were aimed at forcing Prime Minister Saad Hariri to reject the tribunal," Rahhal said. "When these scenarios failed, they declared political warfare on him today.
"They think that by piling the pressure on him, Hariri will bend but they are mistaken."
Hariri on Wednesday was to meet with US President Barack Obama to discuss the political crisis.
The Sunni premier has also held talks in recent days in New York with Saudi King Abdullah, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the crisis.
Mustapha Alloush, a senior member of Hariri's Future Movement, said Hezbollah and its allies had timed the announcement of the government collapse to coincide with the premier's meeting with Obama scheduled at 1500 GMT.
"They want Hariri to enter the meeting with the US president as an ex-premier or as head of a caretaker government," Alloush told AFP. "But the real goal is to deal a moral blow to the United States."
Lebanon's hard-won unity government is made up of 30 ministers, 10 of them representing Hezbollah and its allies.
In order for the government to collapse, Hezbollah needs to secure the backing of more than a third of the ministers. Political sources identified the 11th minister planning to submit his resignation as Minister of State Adnan Sayyed Hussein, close to President Michel Sleiman.
Contacted by AFP, Hussein refused to confirm that he planned to step down.
Syria and Saudi Arabia have for months been attempting to mediate the crisis but their efforts have failed, with rival Lebanese camps accusing each other of refusing to compromise.
"Saad Hariri was on the brink of making a major concession as concerns the tribunal but occult forces prevented him from doing so," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a former ally of Hariri, told AFP without elaborating.
The standoff between Hariri's camp and Hezbollah has paralysed the government for months and sparked concerns of sectarian violence similar to that which brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.
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