By Hussein Dakroub
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
BEIRUT: Hizbullah staged a quiet show of force Tuesday that rattled nerves, hours before senior Qatari and Turkish officials began talks in Beirut in an attempt to contain political tension over a U.N.-backed tribunal probing the 2005 killing of statesman Rafik Hariri.
Hizbullah’s actions came hours before Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Bin Jaber al-Thani and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu began a series of talks with Lebanon’s political leaders aimed at preventing a slide toward sectarian strife.
As The Daily Star went to press early Wednesday, Sheikh Hamad and Davutoglu were in talks with Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut. The two officials will spend the night in the capital to hold further talks with other political leaders Wednesday.
In talks earlier with President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri and caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Sheikh Hamad and Davutoglu briefed them on the results of the three-way summit in Damascus. The Qatari and Turkish officials’ meeting with Hariri was the longest, lasting four hours. No statement was issued after the meeting.
Hizbullah’s move Tuesday was viewed by the March 14 coalition as a “rehearsal” to what might happen if the group is accused of any involvement in the massive bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others in Beirut on Feb. 14, 2005.
It came a day after the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare handed a draft indictment to the tribunal’s pre-trial Judge Daniel Fransen. The indictment had been widely assumed to be set to implicate some Hizbullah members, raising fears of sectarian violence.
Hizbullah, which has repeatedly denied involvement in Hariri’s assassination, has dismissed the S.T.L. as an “American-Israeli tool” designed to incite sectarian strife in Lebanon.
Groups of Hizbullah members, clad in black uniforms, fanned out in several neighborhoods in West Beirut early Tuesday, creating panic among the residents and leading parents to pick up their children from schools, security sources and witnesses said. The unarmed men, carrying wireless sets and handy phones, were seen in areas from the southern suburb of Hadath to Beirut’s Downtown district.
The men appeared to be well-organized and trained for fighting, the sources said. The groups, which began fanning out at 3.00 a.m. Tuesday, disbanded at 7.00 a.m. after troops and security forces deployed in the areas, the sources said. No trouble was reported during the street gatherings which were apparently linked to mounting tension over the S.T.L.’s indictment.
Hizbullah has made no comment on Tuesday’s incident or on Monday’s indictment handover to Fransen. But a source close to Hizbullah described Tuesday’s public gatherings as “a small message to say that the time for talk is over.”
Nasrallah has warned the March 14 coalition that it would be too late to reach a solution for the Lebanese crisis once the indictment was issued.
As-Safir newspaper quoted Hizbullah-ally Berri as saying that the post-indictment stage would be different from the pre-indictment stage.
The Qatari-Turkish mediation bid comes after Lebanon’s political crisis deepened with the collapse last week of Hariri’s national unity Cabinet following the resignations of ministers of Hizbullah and its March 8 allies.
It also came a day after the leaders of Syria, Turkey and Qatar, who met in Damascus Monday, voiced support for the Saudi-Syrian efforts aimed at defusing tension over the indictment. Last week, the March 8 coalition declared that the Saudi-Syrian initiative to resolve the months-long crisis had reached a dead end.
Sleiman held “deep and useful” talks with Sheikh Hamad and Davutoglu, said a statement released by the president’s office in Baabda.
“The situation is still under discussion according to the Saudi-Syrian initiative,” Berri told reporters after meeting with the Qatari and Turkish officials, who did not make any statements after meeting the three leaders.
Before flying to Beirut, Davutoglu, who met Iranian officials Monday, said: “As countries in the region and allies, we can’t be observers to Lebanon being dragged into another political crisis. We will hold talks with all political actors in Lebanon, including Hizbullah, which is both a political party and an organization supported to a great extent by the people.”
A Lebanese political source close to the Qatari-Turkish talks said Sheikh Hamad and Davutoglu were trying to sort out some “vague ideas” related to the S.T.L. and based on the Saudi-Syrian settlement in their meetings with Lebanese leaders.
“The Qatari and Turkish officials are trying to reconcile the views of the March 8 camp and Prime Minister Hariri on the point relating to the tribunal,” the source told The Daily Star.
He said that the Qatari and Turkish officials would not mind a new postponement of the parliamentary consultations on naming a new prime minister, scheduled for Monday, should more time be needed to mediate a solution. “They are working to accomplish the work quickly. But there is no problem in postponing the consultations again if the need arises,” the source said.
A senior March 8 source said new elements had to be taken into consideration after the failure of the Saudi-Syrian efforts to forge a deal between the March 8 and March 14 camps. “Matters cannot go on as if there is no Cabinet’s resignation or no indictment has been issued. What was good until last Sunday cannot be good for now,” the source said.
“Although the March 8 camp’s next step has not yet been outlined, all possibilities are open. What happened today [Hizbullah’s show of force] was a message that another logic has entered the equation,” the source added.
Shortly after word spread about the public gatherings, some schools contacted parents to tell them to come and pick up their children “because the security situation is not good,” said a mother as she picked up her three children from a school in the Hamra area.
Several schools shut down as news spread about the street gatherings. Caretaker Education Minister Hassan Mneimneh urged parents to bring their children back to school. “Wednesday will be a normal school day,” he told LBCI TV.
Security forces did not intervene to stop the public gatherings. But a heavy army presence could be seen by midday in the neighborhoods where the gatherings took place. As an army spokesman told A.F.P, “We have taken measures to reassure citizens,” while a security official speculated to A.F.P. that, “The gatherings may signal preparations to mobilize in relation to the indictment being handed down.”
Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc slammed Hizbullah’s gatherings as “a veiled formula for an armed coup” which the Lebanese would not accept. “The orchestrated gatherings carried out by members of Hizbullah and its allies for more than two hours … were aimed at sending a clear message to the Lebanese about preparations to stage riots and also a similar message to the Qatari and Turkish foreign ministers who are visiting Lebanon today,” said a statement issued after the bloc’s meeting.
Meanwhile, Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad with whom he discussed “cooperation between the two armies of the two countries and the army’s role in consolidating security and stability in Lebanon, especially under the circumstances through which the region is passing,” Syria’s official news agency SANA reported.