Lebanon Crisis Reignites Wider 'Cold War' ; Five Shiite Ministers Quit Lebanon's Government This Weekend, Ending Talks and Sparking a Political Upheaval

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A walkout by five Shiite cabinet ministers over the weekend has deepened Lebanon's political crisis and sharpened the divisions in a larger, "cold war" struggle for influence over the Middle East.

The tense power struggle within Lebanon's government is, in fact, a key front in a diplomatic battle that pits the US, which backs the government coalition, against Iran and Syria, which support the powerful Shiite Hizbullah party and militant group.

The resignation of the Shiite ministers in the 24-member government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora came after Lebanon's top leaders reached deadlock in a week-long series of round-table talks to discuss opposition demands for creating an expanded national unity government. The opposition, spearheaded by Hizbullah, is seeking a one-third share of the cabinet, granting it veto power over government decisions.

The walkout threatens to prolong political gridlock in Lebanon and raises the threat of Hizbullah launching street protests to demand early parliamentary elections.

"We are going to witness a peak in this political, media, and popular cold war that we saw in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, only this time around the consequences are going to be much more profound for Lebanon, the region, and the United States," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East center in Beirut.

Key role of the Hariri investigation

Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, was killed in a massive car bomb explosion in February 2005. Monday, the government is due to discuss a draft United Nations resolution on the creation of an international tribunal to try those accused of Mr. Hariri's murder. With Syria widely blamed for the assassination, anti-Syrian Lebanese believe Damascus has mobilized its Lebanese allies to block the government from approving the bill.

"We are sure that Syria does not want to have the possibility of facing the international tribunal, which is why they are trying to [prevent] Lebanon from having an agreement with the UN on the formation of the tribunal," says Boutros Harb, a leading Christian lawmaker.

The tribunal can still be approved by the UN even if the Lebanese government rejects the draft resolution, but its credibility would be tarnished without formal Lebanese support.

Despite unyielding pressure from Washington, the Syrian regime has been strengthened in recent months due to a reinvigorated relationship with Iran, continued influence in Lebanon, and the weakening position of the US in neighboring Iraq. But, analysts say, the conclusion of a UN investigation into Hariri's murder represents a "sword of Damocles" from which Syria's leadership cannot escape.

"Syria and its allies are looking to close off this threat, or to diminish it, or neuter it anyway they can," says Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and editor-in-chief of Syria Today magazine. "The unfortunate outcome of the Hariri investigation is that it is internationally supercharged and Hizbullah [and its allies] feel that it's a Western threat - an American and Israeli threat - to the balance of power in Lebanon, and they want to stop it. …