Hizbollah given right to remain an armed force

Lebanon's president stresses need to deal with Israel as a top priority, as he and allies debate country's security situation.

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BEIRUT // Lebanon's national unity cabinet voted to allow Hizbollah to remain an armed force yesterday to protect the country from Israeli aggression and to help liberate the small amounts of Lebanese territory Israel still occupies.

The decision not to oppose Hizbollah remaining armed and independent of the state came as part of an overall package of ministerial statements approved by the new cabinet lead by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose coalition won in June's parliamentary election but it took several months of negotiations with the Hizbollah-led opposition before a cabinet was formed. Many of Mr Hariri's allies in the Sunni Muslim and Christian communities bitterly oppose Hizbollah's role as an independent security force focusing primarily on the southern border with Israel, but they lacked the votes in cabinet to force a debate on disarming the group. Mr Hariri's Sunni allies went along with the vote despite their concerns, but five members from right-wing Christian parties either opposed the measure or offered reservations.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly threatened all of Lebanon with attacks if another war with Hizbollah were to break out, arguing that the Shiite group's presence in the cabinet and the unwillingness of Mr Hariri to disarm the group mean that the Lebanese government endorses the group's actions against Israel. Lebanon's weak sectarian system of government, however, leaves the state virtually helpless to confront the group, which draws huge support from the Shiite population, Lebanon's single largest religious group, and military capabilities of the Lebanese Armed Forces are dwarfed by Hizbollah's well-trained militia, which is outfitted with high-technology weaponry supplied by Iran.

The president, Michel Suleiman, used the cabinet meeting to remind the politicians that Lebanon remains under Israeli threat and its lands are still occupied by its forces, primarily a tiny sliver of land known as Chebba Farms and the divided village of Ghajar. "The president talked about Israel, which is still threatening us, and about the need to deal with it with a high national responsibility," the information minister, Tarek Mitri, told reporters. "He also informed the ministers of the visit he carried out to Syria, during which he discussed the regional situation and international relations as well as the peace process and Lebanon's role in the UN Security Council."

The section of Mr Hariri's statement dealing with Hizbollah and armed resistance to Israel, Article 6, was opposed by the Christian minister of labour, Boutros Harb, while four other Christian ministers expressed "reservations", but did not vote against the measure, according to Mr Mitri. "The ministers who expressed reservations or objected were the ones who stressed most on the cabinet's solidarity, and this is mentioned in the ministerial statement's introduction," he said. "They have repeatedly stated that their objection or reservations on Article 6 of the ministerial statement does not mean that they are an opposition within the cabinet."

The presence of such disagreements should not be seen as a failure of unity in the new cabinet's first decision, he said. "Expressing reservations is natural and legitimate. It was expected. This does not mean that there is an opposition inside the cabinet. There is no ministerial statement that can please everybody in all its articles." As the cabinet deliberated the issue of Hizbollah's weapons, a visit to Lebanon by the top prosecutor investigating the 2005 assassination of Mr Hariri's father, Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister, set the stage for future conflicts within the government. The opposition and Hizbollah consider the tribunal to be politically motivated and aimed at their close ally Syria, which many Lebanese hold responsible for killing Hariri.

A spokesperson for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which will need the cooperation of the cabinet to function - hardly guaranteed with Hizbollah and the opposition controlling a veto power - said the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, had arrived in Beirut on Tuesday to meet the president and members of the new government. The work was described as moving ahead. "The investigation is making progress and is proceeding at full pace," said a statement by the tribunal's spokeswoman, Radhia Achouri.

"The process - is purely evidence-driven and - cannot be overcast with doubts about the credibility and the integrity of the justice rendered by the tribunal." mprothero@thenational.ae