BEIRUT: The specter of an imminent U.S. military strike against Syria and fears of more car bombings dominated Lebanon’s political landscape Monday, overshadowing President Michel Sleiman’s plea for the formation of an all-embracing government to deal with security challenges.
If anything, the threat by the United States and its Western allies to punish Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons last week has further heightened tensions in a country faced with the prospect of descending into Iraq-style sectarian tit-for-tat violence. The alleged attack killed hundreds of civilians outside Damascus.
Political analysts expect a negative fallout for Lebanon from any U.S. attack on Syria. Security and stability in the tiny country have already been jolted by the repercussions of the 29-month-old civil war in its neighbor.
“All that’s happening here in Lebanon are details. All eyes now are on Syria where there has been a dangerous escalation in recent days,” a senior March 8 source told The Daily Star.
A political source, meanwhile, warned of worse attacks in light of the deep divisions between rival parties over the conflict in Syria.
“ Lebanon is threatened with more car bombings and even assassination of prominent political figures with the aim of rekindling civil strife,” the source told The Daily Star.
Fears of more violence of the ilk of that seen over the last few weeks in Beirut and Tripoli come as Lebanon is in the throes of a deep political malaise with no sitting government and political leaders, sharply divided by the crisis in Syria, locking horns over the makeup and role of a new Cabinet.
The conditions and counterconditions set by the March 8 and March 14 camps have stalled Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam’s attempts to form a new Cabinet, leaving the country’s security exposed to threats from the fire raging next door.
A political source told The Daily Star that Speaker Nabih Berri was “still weighing the chances of announcing a political initiative to break the deadlock” during a televised speech scheduled next Saturday to mark the anniversary of the disappearance of Shiite Imam Musa Sadr, the founder of the Amal Movement.
Three recent car bombings have killed dozens and wounded hundreds in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of the capital and the northern city of Tripoli, sharply increasing tensions in the country.
The latest was a twin attack last Friday targeting two mosques in Tripoli, killing at least 47 people and wounding more than 500. That attack came eight days after a car bomb killed 30 people and wounded over 300 in Beirut’s southern Ruwaiss suburb.
The incidents have sparked calls from Sleiman as well as religious leaders for the formation of a new government comprising all the political parties to meet security challenges and prevent the country’s drift toward sectarian strife.
Sleiman made an urgent appeal to political leaders, asking them to safeguard Lebanon by forming an all-embracing government, return to National Dialogue and disassociate the country from regional conflicts.
Responding to Sleiman’s appeal, a Hezbollah official said the party would extend a hand to political rivals in a bid to save Lebanon.
“We have heard from the president that he wants to form an all-embracing national unity government and he wants a national dialogue,” MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament, said in a speech in the southern town of Jbaa.
“We continue to extend our hand in order to shoulder our national responsibilities and safeguard the country.”
In another speech Sunday, Raad warned that the formation of a fait accompli government would be a recipe for strife.
The parliamentary Future bloc demanded that a new government be quickly formed to confront dangers threatening the country.
“The formation of a government capable of committing to the Baabda Declaration – that is commitment to protecting Lebanon and distancing it from regional and international conflicts – has become an urgent issue to face dangers Lebanon is experiencing,” the bloc said in a statement after holding its weekly meeting in Tripoli.
It added that the new government should work as a “homogenous team” to reduce these dangers.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai urged the rival leaders to reconcile, saying that the Lebanese were paying a heavy price for their political differences.
“We should have an understanding, engage in dialogue, be frank and reconcile or else the price we will have to pay will be very hefty,” Rai said, adding that the Lebanese were already paying the price of political disputes at the socioeconomic and security levels.
He made the comments while at the Higher Shiite Council in the southern suburbs after offering his condolences to the council and families of the victims of the Ruwaiss bombing.
Speaking after visiting the bombing sites in Tripoli and Ruwaiss to offer condolences, Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani also called for the formation of a national unity government comprising all the parties.
During his tour of Ruwaiss, Qabbani was met by senior officials and lawmakers from Hezbollah.
“The prime minister-designate should quickly form an all-embracing national unity Cabinet to move disputes out of the streets,” Qabbani said while in Ruwaiss. He urged politicians to avoid “arrogant and defiant” speeches.
Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Naim Hasan, who visited Dar al-Fatwa – the seat of the Sunni mufti – and the Higher Shiite Council to offer his condolences over the victims of the recent bombings, said the formation of a national unity government had become “a pressing need.”
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea renewed his rejection of Hezbollah’s participation in any Cabinet and called for the formation of a neutral government that would exclude the March 8 and March 14 parties.
“It is not possible for the time being to form a national unity government simply because Hezbollah has taken a decision [over its military intervention in Syria] without consulting with anyone,” Geagea said in an interview with Future Television. “We cannot at present sit with Hezbollah in one Cabinet.”