Hizbullah is pushing for more power in a new Lebanese Cabinet partly to avoid being disarmed by any future government, a senior official in the guerrilla group said. The remarks Friday by Mahmoud Komati, deputy head of Hizbullah's political bureau, were the first time the Shiite Muslim group has publicly acknowledged a direct link between weapons possession and its drive for more power. Hizbullah's disarmament is a top demand of the United States and Israel. The UN cease-fire resolution that ended the Hizbullah-Israel war in August also calls for the group's disarmament.
'Nasrallah willing to compromise'
The Shiite group, backed by Syria and its allies in the Lebanese government, insists it will lay down its arms only when Lebanon has a strong enough government and army to defend its borders with Israel.
Hizbullah and its allies have staged massive protests in recent weeks to demand more than one-third the seats in the Cabinet, enough to give them veto power over key decisions.
US-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his anti-Syrian supporters have rejected Hizbullah's demands, calling the campaign a Syria-backed coup.
Komati said Hizbullah started asking for greater share in the government only after the July-August war with Israel and that one of the key reasons was to prevent the pro-US government from forcing it to disarm.
"Now we are demanding it (greater government share), because our experience during the war and the performance of the government has made us unsure. On several occasions they pressured us to lay down our weapons while we were fighting a war," Komati told The Associated Press in a huge tent, one of hundreds Hizbullah has erected for sit-ins just outside Saniora's office.
"So after the war, we had no choice but to demand this guarantee that would give us legal and constitutional strength. If we take the one-third plus one, the government will not be able to impose its decision on us," said Komati.
Holding just over a third of the seats would allow Hizbullah and its allies to bring down the Cabinet if it intended to pass a decision they oppose.
In the past week, Arab League mediators managed to get the two sides to agree on the outlines of a national unity Cabinet, but the rival factions failed to bridge other differences that threaten to scuttle the deal.
Among the points the two sides agreed on, said Komati, was the formation of a unity government made up of 19 pro-Saniora ministers, 10 opposition ministers and a neutral 11th minister.
The opposition has proposed that it choose the 11th minister but give the government the freedom to approve the nomination. Komati said the government still has not agreed to this proposal.
Lebanon's political crisis extends beyond its borders. Washington has accused Iran and Syria of seeking to undermine the Saniora government, while Hizbullah accuses Saniora's government of taking orders from Washington.
The US President George W. Bush's administration is considering a large increase in aid to the Lebanese army, which has taken on the risky task of extending its reach to the border with Israel for the first time in decades.
Currently, US$10 million (â‚¬7.6 million) has been allocated for training, with a smattering of other funds in the pipeline under other programs. Some 130 Lebanese officers and noncommissioned officers took military courses in the United States this year.
French President Jacques Chirac renewed support for the Saniora government Friday and pressed ahead with plans for a Jan. 25 international donor conference in Paris to raise funds for rebuilding Lebanon.
Saniora, meanwhile, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, hoping to gain Russia's help in smoothing over relations with Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad is due in Moscow for talks next week.
"This was a great opportunity to hear from the Russian president himself a direct and open confirmation of Russia's support for the legitimate government in Lebanon," Saniora told a news conference after meeting with Putin.
He also said he wanted Russia's help in rebuilding Lebanon's army.
The RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Putin as telling Saniora that Russia would "do everything we can to support the Lebanese people in rebuilding the economy, infrastructure and developing normal economic ties."