(photo credit: Associated Press)
BEIRUT — The Islamic militant group Hezbollah and its allies plan to resign from the Lebanese Cabinet and topple the government on Wednesday over tensions stemming from the international investigation of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, officials said.
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The ministers were planning to resign in the afternoon unless Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri — the son of the slain leader — agrees to their demand to convene an urgent Cabinet meeting over the tribunal crisis, Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalifeh said on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV.
Hizbullah members are expected to be indicted by the Hariri tribunal, which will hand over its findings within "hours or days," according to a Wednesday report in Lebanese newspaper An Nahar
Hizbullah has denounced the tribunal as an "Israeli project" and urged Hariri to reject any findings by the court, which has not yet announced any indictments.
But the prime minister has refused to break cooperation with the tribunal.
Another official allied to Hizbullah confirmed the resignation plan, which calls for Hizbullah and its allies to step down along with one more minister who would tip the balance and force the government to fall.
Hariri, whose coalition has been sharing power with the Iranian-backed militant group, was to meet Wednesday with President Barack Obama in Washington to discuss the crisis.
A U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the elder Hariri's killing is widely expected to name members of the Hizbullah in upcoming indictments, which many fear could re-ignite hostilities between Lebanon's rival Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
To bring down the government, Hizbullah needs the backing of more than a third of the ministers. Hizbullah and its allies have 10 ministers in the 30-member Cabinet, and an official close to Hizbullah said an 11th minister close to President Michel Suleiman would also submit his resignation.
"It all depends on the prime minister's response to our call for a Cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis," the official told The Associated Press, asking that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the matter. "We are considering our options and a resignation is top of the list."
The impending indictments already have paralyzed Lebanon's government.
Minutes after the Beirut Stock Exchange opened, the shares of the giant development company Solidere — the largest company listed on the stock exchange — dropped about 7 percent.
Hariri's office had no immediate comment on the resignation plans, but referred to his earlier statement late Tuesday that said:
"We will use all possible means to keep channels open to all the Lebanese to reach solutions that guarantee stability and calm and preserve national unity."
Violence has been a major concern as tensions rise in Lebanon, where Shiites, Sunnis and Christians each make up about a third of the country's four million people. In 2008, sectarian clashes killed 81 people and nearly plunged Lebanon into another civil war.
Hariri's assassination in a suicide bombing that killed 22 other people both stunned and polarized Lebanese. He was a Sunni who was a hero to his own community and backed by many Christians who sympathized with his efforts in the last few months of his life to reduce Syrian influence in the country. A string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and public figures followed, which UN investigators have said may have been connected to the Hariri killing.
The Netherlands-based tribunal has not said who it will indict, but Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has said he has information that members of his group will be named.
Hizbullah denied any role in the assassination and denounced the court as a conspiracy against it.
On Tuesday, officials announced that a diplomatic push by Syria and Saudi Arabia had failed to reach a deal to ease political tensions in Lebanon. There had been few details about the direction of the Syrian-Saudi initiative, but the talks were lauded as a potential Arab breakthrough, rather than a solution offered by Western powers.
Hizbullah Cabinet Minister Mohammed Fneish said Tuesday the initiative was done in by "American intervention and the inability of the other side to overcome American pressure."
The collapse prompted Wednesday's push for an emergency Cabinet meeting, even though Hariri was out of the country and planning to meet Obama. The prime minister also has met in recent days with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Saudi King Abdullah during a trip to the US.