- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

BEIRUT — Hezbollah is threatening street protests to force early elections in Lebanon if its demands are not met for a “national unity” Cabinet that would give the Islamic militants and their allies veto power over key decisions.

The bold move reflects the Shi’ite group’s push to consolidate the political power it gained after its self-proclaimed victory in its summer war with Israel. The effort seems certain to further exacerbate an already tense political situation in Lebanon, where the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has refused earlier Hezbollah calls to step down and allow the formation of a new Cabinet.

It could also lead to violence, with pro-government groups warning of a confrontation with militants in the streets.

“Our concept of the national unity government is that all the basic forces in Lebanon be in it … actual and serious participation, not an aesthetic participation,” Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said in a lengthy interview on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV Tuesday night.

In the same interview, Sheik Nasrallah said that “serious negotiations” were taking place over the two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 capture by his militant group sparked the 34-day war.

He said a negotiator appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been meeting with Hezbollah and Israeli officials. He would not provide details about the negotiations, but told Al-Manar: “We have reached a stage of exchanging ideas, proposals or conditions.”

The Israeli government declined to comment on the assertion.

“We don’t comment about anything that has to do with the abducted soldiers. Israel will do all it takes to get their release without hurting Israel’s security,” spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

Sheik Nasrallah also warned that any attempts by the beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah would transform the country into another Iraq or Afghanistan. He did not elaborate.

A U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended the fighting on Aug. 14 does not give a direct mandate to the peacekeepers to take away Hezbollah’s weapons by force, unless the fighters are caught in the buffer zone along the border with Israel.

On the domestic front, Sheik Nasrallah said Hezbollah and its allies should comprise one-third of the 24-member Cabinet. That effectively means the group and its allies could veto key decisions. A two-thirds vote in the Cabinet is needed to pass decisions that are not made by consensus. A resignation of one-third of the Cabinet automatically brings down the government.

Mr. Siniora has repeatedly rejected the idea of a new government, contending that his Cabinet achieved much for the country and did its best to stop the war. His supporters say that Hezbollah and its backers, in pushing for greater political power, are doing Syria’s bidding and are trying to undermine the formation of an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

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