BEIRUT: Prime Minister Tammam Salam scrambled Thursday to reassure jittery Lebanese increasingly worried about a negative fallout from militants’ military gains in Iraq, pledging to shield Lebanon from regional conflicts.
Salam sought to allay what he termed “Lebanese fears” over “painful events” in Syria and Iraq and the prospects of the fire raging in both countries spreading to Lebanon.
“We, in the ‘national interest’ government, will not allow anyone to tamper with Lebanon’s security and stability,” Salam said in a speech at the opening of the Arab Economic Forum in Beirut. “We will work with all our strength and willpower to shield our country against the effects of the fire raging in neighboring countries, near and far.”
In protecting Lebanon against the repercussions of the war in Syria and the military advances in Iraq by the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Salam said: “We will depend on our Army and security forces as well as the consciousness of the overwhelming majority of the Lebanese and their belief in a united, secure and stable Lebanon.”
Lebanon is already suffering from a bloody spillover of the war in Syria, now in its fourth year, including the influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees into Lebanese territories.
Last week’s lightning military blitz in Iraq by ISIS during which the militant group seized large swaths of Iraqi territory, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city in the north, has heightened security concerns in Lebanon, particularly putting Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, on edge.
The dramatic developments in Iraq prompted Lebanese security forces to go on high alert to ward off a violent spillover from Iraq. The Army has stepped up its patrols near the border with Syria in search of gunmen and terror suspects.
The ISIS and other Al-Qaeda-linked groups have claimed responsibility for the deadly car bombings and suicide attacks that targeted areas in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa region where Hezbollah enjoys wide support earlier this year in response to the party’s military intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Earlier this week, the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah went on high alert in Beirut’s southern suburbs following rumors that ISIS is plotting to attack hospitals and institutions affiliated with Hezbollah in retaliation for the party’s role in Syria.
While army checkpoints searched all vehicles entering the southern suburbs and soldiers blocked roads to hospitals in the area, Hezbollah deployed heavily, particularly around Rasoul al-Azam hospital on the airport road and Bahman hospital. Concrete blocks and barriers were set up in several locations in the southern suburbs to prevent any bomb attacks. In his speech, Salam lamented Parliament’s failure to choose a successor to former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year term ended on May 25, thus plunging the country into a presidential vacuum.
Meanwhile, Parliament failed to meet for a lack of quorum to decide on salary increases for civil servants and teachers, prompting Speaker Nabih Berri to keep the legislature in open-ended session until consensus is reached over the controversial wage hike bill. A boycott by the Future bloc and its March 14 allies thwarted the session’s quorum.
Berri was quoted by visitors as saying that the obstruction of the wage hike bill was linked to the presidential election. He said the Future bloc boycotted the session in solidarity with the Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces over the presidential vacuum.
Berri added that the election of a president should have happened days after Sleiman’s term ended, but it did not. “Therefore, the obstruction of the salary scale [bill] and other issues is linked to the presidential election.”