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Lebanon Political Crisis Deepens; Violence Feared

Saad Hariri speak in Beirut
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks during a press conference with a poster of his father slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in the background, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Jan. 20, 2011. AP Photo

Syria and Qatar appeared to have made no progress Thursday in their efforts to forge a compromise among rival Lebanese groups. Both sides recognize that major difficulties still lay ahead, but hope, however, the situation will not go from bad to worse.

The collapse of the Lebanese government a week ago created the worst political crisis Lebanon has seen in over two years. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani were racing against the clock in their second meeting in a couple of days to find common ground among Lebanese groups. They are deadlocked over the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Saad Hariri was ousted from his position as Prime Minister by opposition ministers led by Hezbollah, the militant Shiite political party, on Wednesday, over Hariri's refusal to reject the international court. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is widely expected to point the finger at Hezbollah members, sparking fears of violence erupting among rival camps.

One day after the Special Tribunal prosecutor submitted the indictments for review by the court's pre-trial judge, groups of black-clad Hezbollah members reportedly deployed in several neighborhoods of West Beirut, creating a state of panic among residents and forcing parents to pick up their children from schools.

"Talks during the meeting dealt with bilateral ties between the two countries and latest regional developments, in particular in Lebanon in light of the stumbling of efforts aiming to find a solution," a presidential statement read after the lengthy talks.

"Both leaders underlined the importance of stability and security and the need for preventing the escalation of the situation in Lebanon," the statement said, giving no further details on the content of the talks.

Syria and Qatar fear instability in Lebanon could have consequences in the wider region. The Turkish government is also reportedly aiming to rally an international conference to help Lebanon to form a government.

In addition to Syrian officials, Saudi Arabian leaders had tried for months to broker a deal between Hezbollah and Hariri but failed to do so.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, announced Wednesday that Riyadh was withdrawing from a Saudi-Syrian initiative to mediate in the Lebanese crisis, warning that the situation in the country has become dangerous. The Foreign Ministers of Turkey and Qatar have also suspended efforts to mediate Lebanon's political crisis after failing to clinch a breakthrough.

The March 8 alliance has said it will not accept Hariri, whose predominantly Sunni-Christian political coalition won a 2009 legislative election and still controls a majority in parliament. The opposition has already decided to name former Prime Minister Omar Karami as a rival candidate to try and oust caretaker premier Hariri.

Hariri's parliamentary Future bloc and its allies nominated Hariri as their only candidate for premier. Under complicated power-sharing arrangements in multi-factional Lebanon, the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim.

President Michel Sleiman, however, postponed binding parliamentary consultations, which was set to start at noon Monday, for a week to give the regional leaders meeting in Syria a chance to exert efforts to ease tension between the rival factions in Beirut.

Assad met Saturday with Independent parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt, whose Druze bloc has enough seats to deliver a majority to whichever candidate he chooses. The Druze leader has distanced himself from the Hariri camp and allied with the opposition.

Observers say possible dramatic changes in alliances could swing the majority the way of the opposition and suggest Lebanon was likely to enter a stage of several months without any government while negotiations on its formation are held.

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