Hizbullah No. 2: We won't turn Lebanon into Iran

Sheik Naim Kassem rejects accusations that gov't of Hizbullah and its allies will try to implement an Iranian-style Islamic state.

Sheik Naim Kassem  248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Sheik Naim Kassem 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah's No. 2 leader, confident of victory in Lebanese weekend elections, said Tuesday the Iranian-backed group would invite its pro-Western opponents to join a national unity government if it wins. Sheik Naim Kassem rejected accusations that a government of Hizbullah and its allies would try to implement an Iranian-style Islamic state. In an interview with The Associated Press, he shrugged off warnings about boycotts and insisted Western nations are willing to talk to the new government irrespective of who wins. But the unity government proposal shows Shi'ite Hizbullah's concern that if it tries to govern Lebanon outright, it could risk international isolation and possibly another war with Israel, much like the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. Vice President Joe Biden, on a visit to Lebanon last month, warned Washington would reassess aid to Lebanon depending on the next government's makeup and policies. The US, which considers Hizbullah a terrorist organization, has provided about $1 billion in aid since 2006. "After June 7, there will be a new scene," said Kassem, who leads Hizbullah's election campaign. He said Hizbullah and its allies "will work to form a national unity government. How much we will succeed is up to the other side." He spoke Tuesday at a secret location in the Hizbullah stronghold of south Beirut. Out of security concerns, AP reporters were driven in a minivan with black-draped windows to an apartment building basement. There, they were transferred to another minivan with black-draped windows to block the view and driven to another building, where Kassem later showed up for the interview. The vote for parliament pits Western-backed factions that have dominated the government for the last four years against a coalition led by Hizbullah and its ally, Christian leader Michel Aoun. Hizbullah has had veto power over government decisions for the past year as part of a national unity government formed after its gunmen overran Beirut Muslim neighborhoods in May 2008, bringing Lebanon to the verge of another civil war. So far, the election has been considered too close to call and the pro-Western coalition has also predicted victory. But if Kassem's predictions materialize, it would be the first time Hizbullah is positioned to play a major role in the formation of Lebanon's government. Kassem predicted his alliance would pick up between three and six seats over the 64-seat margin to have an absolute majority in the 128-member legislature. The country's sectarian-based division of power and complex alliances across sectarian divides make it hard for any single party to govern alone and without consensus. Under the system, Christians and Muslim equally share the Cabinet and the legislature. Lebanon's legislature has been sharply polarized between the two camps since 2005, paralyzing state operations. The majority currently has 70 seats and the minority, including Hizbullah, has 58. Political turmoil and instability have buffeted the country since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri's supporters blamed the bombing on Syria. Damascus denied the accusations, but mass protests in Lebanon and US-led international pressure forced Syria's army out of Lebanon, ending 29 years of dominance. Lebanon is still trying to chart its own direction after the Syrian pullout. The election of Hizbullah and its pro-Syrian allies would mark a resurgence of Syrian influence. That has raised US concerns, particularly because Washington considers the heavily armed Hizbullah with a long history of anti-Israeli activities a terrorist organization. The US has been at odds with Damascus over Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinians. Kassem predicted some factions from the pro-Western coalition would opt to join the new government. But one major faction has already said it won't. He accused the US of last-minute attempts to influence the vote, but said they would not work. President Barack Obama is addressing Muslims in a speech from Cairo Thursday, days before the Lebanese election, in his latest overture to improve relations with the Islamic world.