Lebanon leader puts onus on U.S.
Badgered by Hezbollah and jeered as a puppet of the U.S. government, Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday blamed American support of Israel for an increasingly violent political crisis that has shredded this country’s stability.
His voice rising in frustration during an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Fouad Siniora said the troubles in his nation would subside if U.S. officials were to press Israel to withdraw its soldiers from Shabaa Farms, a small patch of disputed turf that the United Nations has said was part of Syria.
With Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and its allies mounting a hard push for a bigger share of power in Lebanon, many people here believe that the international community should force Hezbollah’s hand by depriving the party of any excuse for keeping an armed militia. The lingering occupation of the land has long been cited by Hezbollah as a justification for its armed guerrilla fighters on Israel’s border.
But the U.S. has ignored his pleas, Siniora said.
“They’re not doing it,” he said.
“That’s what we’re telling them. That’s what we disagree with them about.”
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, told of Siniora’s comments, said: “We understand the enormous pressure Prime Minister Siniora is under from Hezbollah and Syria and others that want to undermine democracy in Lebanon. We will stand by him to make sure democracy in Lebanon is successful, and we will continue to work for greater peace within the Middle East.”
Divided by old sectarian and class tensions and battered by regional instability, Lebanon has reverted to being a battleground for regional and international conflicts. The United States, Iran, Syria, France, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have pursued geopolitical agendas through local allies and proxies.
By all accounts, Siniora, a Sunni Muslim technocrat and former finance minister of humble birth, is Washington’s favorite amid the stable of former warlords and clan patriarchs who jockey for power here. Officials in the Bush administration go out of their way to praise and bolster his government. And during months of angry anti-government protests, he has been cursed in the streets as a stooge of U.S. policy.
When he griped about the United States on Tuesday, it was a striking reminder of how American policy toward Lebanon can in some cases appear to undercut even Siniora, whom the Bush administration has scrambled to shore up in the face of fierce opposition.
Lebanese leaders complain that the United States failed to help Siniora when it mattered most, during last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah. Israeli bombs pounded this country for weeks. An increasingly desperate Siniora wept on television and implored the Americans to intervene to stop the Israeli onslaught. But Washington refused to ask for a cease-fire.
In the final 36 hours of the war, Israel stepped up its shelling of southern Lebanon and unleashed a torrent of cluster bombs. More than a million bomblets and 380,000 land mines remain on Lebanese land, Siniora said Tuesday.
Israel has also continued to breach the cease-fire agreement with steady violations of Lebanese airspace, he said. According to the United Nations, Israel has engaged in about five or six flyovers each week.
“In the Arab world there were always a lot of complaints and grievances against the United States.... They’ve pushed the Arab world toward extremism,” Siniora said. The Arabs are “being humiliated every day. [The Americans] can see with their own eyes the Israelis are subjugating the Palestinians.”
As for Hezbollah, it has seemed determined to keep its guns -- no matter what happens to Shabaa Farms. Hezbollah lawmaker Nawar Sahili said the militia wouldn’t even consider disarming until it believed the Lebanese army had been proved capable of defending the country.
“This is a red line for us,” Sahili said of disarmament. “When the Lebanese army is strong enough, maybe.”
In the nearly six months since a cease-fire stopped the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, Siniora has come under harsh attack from the Islamic militant group and its allies, who cursed his government as an American puppet and demanded more power. Mass demonstrations outside his office have dragged on for months, sparking street fighting and dredging up dark memories of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, a conflict that finally faded out in the early 1990s.
On Tuesday, Siniora traced Lebanon’s perpetual instability back to Israeli occupation, both of southern Lebanon and of the Palestinian territories. It was the repeated Israeli invasions and occupation of southern Lebanon, he said, that created Hezbollah and allowed it to spread.
Pointedly describing Shabaa Farms as Lebanese territory, Siniora insisted that if Israel were forced to relinquish the land, his government and Hezbollah could come to an understanding.
“The Arab-Israeli conflict is the mother of most problems in the Arab world,” he said.
For now, Lebanon remains deeply locked in crisis. Gunfights erupted around the country last month between rival Christian factions and between Sunnis and Shiites.
The bloodshed rattled the political leaders, and both sides toned down their rhetoric and struggled to rein in the rage among their followers.
But talks between the government and the opposition remain frozen. Even during the bloodiest days of the civil war, the various sides kept talking, a Western diplomat here pointed out this week. But now, he said, there is no negotiation.
Each side blames the other for the break in talks.
Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Arabia have begun to negotiate a settlement to Lebanon’s impasse. Predominantly Shiite Iran has close ties to Hezbollah, while largely Sunni Saudi Arabia is a staunch supporter of the Siniora government.
As he complained about the Americans, Siniora praised Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah as a “man who believes in his cause and who sacrificed even his son for that cause.”
He also said that the Bush administration should engage Syria to pacify the region.
“Syria is a state. You cannot eliminate that state from the map. You’ve got to engage with Syria ... to make it part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.