Lebanese minister resigns over Hezbollah domination

BEIRUT — Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi resigned from the Cabinet Sunday, saying the militant Hezbollah group dominates the government and is harming Beirut’s relations with Arab countries.

The resignation of Rifi, a longtime critic of the Shiite Hezbollah, comes two days after Saudi Arabia halted deals worth $4 billion aimed at equipping and supporting Lebanese security forces. The move came after Lebanon failed to back the Sunni kingdom in its spat with Shiite powerhouse Iran, the leading backer of Hezbollah.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council backed the Saudi decision, raising concerns it could have repercussions for thousands of Lebanese living in Gulf countries.

Lebanon has a sectarian divide that reflects the wider regional split between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has long been a battlefield for the region’s proxy wars.

The Saudi decision came after Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil declined to support Saudi resolutions against Iran during two meetings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers. Bassil is the president of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, a key ally of Hezbollah.

“He (Bassil) dared to offend the kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the request of Hezbollah,” Rifi said in a statement announcing his resignation. “The practices of Hezbollah’s statelet and its allies are not acceptable and staying in the government means approving them.”

Hezbollah was the only Lebanese faction to remain armed after the country’s 1975-1990 civil war and is widely seen as more powerful than the Lebanese military.

“There is an armed party that is dominating the government’s decisions,” Rifi said. “I call upon the government to at least apologize to the (Saudi) kingdom, its leadership and people.”

Lebanon has had a national unity government since 2014, with members of different factions including Hezbollah and the Saudi-backed Future Movement headed by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri returned to Lebanon earlier this month. He had spent much of the past five years outside the country after his government was brought down by Hezbollah and its allies in early 2011.

Current Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam is a strong ally of Saudi Arabia and has called on the kingdom to reconsider its decision.

The Saudi-backed March 14 coalition held a meeting later Sunday and issued a statement warning that Hezbollah’s stances toward GCC countries will affect thousands of Lebanese families who live and work in the oil-rich region.

“We refuse to turn Lebanon into a base to be used for animosity of Arab states or to interfere in their internal affairs,” said the statement read by former Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. The group also called on Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, where it sent thousands of fighters to back the government against insurgents.

Lebanon has been without a president since Michel Suleiman’s term ended in May 2014. The parliament has since failed to elect a new head of state because it lacks a quorum.

Rifi has also been campaigning against last month’s release of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Samaha was convicted by a Lebanese military court on charges of plotting bombings at the behest of Syria. He was sentenced in May to four-and-a-half years in prison.

The court agreed last month to release Samaha on $100,000 bail. He was banned from leaving the country pending a retrial.

Rifi tried unsuccessfully to refer the case to another judicial body, saying his attempts were blocked by Hezbollah. The armed Shiite movement has sent thousands of fighters to back Assad in the Syrian civil war.

“I will not be a false witness and will not be a cover for those who are trying to dominate the state and its institutions,” Rifi said.

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