Saudis pull out of talks on crisis in Lebanon

Move by ally is setback for US

By Elizabeth A. Kennedy
Associated Press / January 20, 2011

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BEIRUT — American diplomacy in the Middle East suffered a setback yesterday when US ally Saudi Arabia abandoned efforts to mediate the political crisis in Lebanon, where the militant group Hezbollah has toppled the Western-backed government.

The withdrawal of Saudi Arabia is the latest sign that the competition over influence in Lebanon is tipping in favor of Hezbollah and its patrons Iran and Syria.

In an interview yesterday with the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the Saudi king had decided to withdraw after months of diplomatic efforts had failed to calm tensions. He did not elaborate.

The political crisis stems from a UN court’s investigation of the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon, a Sunni leader who was a dual Saudi-Lebanese national with very close ties to the Saudi royal family.

The UN court, which is widely expected to blame the Shi’ite Hezbollah for the assassination, filed a sealed draft indictment Monday, touching off a process many fear could ignite new bloodshed nearly six years after the massive truck bombing along Beirut’s waterfront that killed Hariri.

Hezbollah denies any role in Hariri’s killing. It pulled out of the coalition government, forcing its collapse last week, when Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader, refused to renounce the tribunal and pull Lebanon’s funding for the court.

The militant group said the tribunal is a conspiracy by Israel and the United States.

The collapse of the government was a blow to the United States and its Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner referred questions about Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal to officials in the kingdom.

“We will continue working with international partners, including Saudi Arabia, to support the Lebanese people in their efforts to further their sovereignty, stability, and independence,’’ Toner said.

The US- and Saudi-backed coalition known as March 14 issued a statement yesterday saying Hezbollah and its allies are trying to turn Lebanon into an “Iranian base’’ in the region.

Yesterday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said Lebanon must keep “evil hands’’ from meddling in its affairs — a clear reference to the United States and its allies that support the UN investigation into Hariri’s assassination.

“Hands off Lebanon,’’ Ahmadinejad told supporters in the central Iranian city of Yazd. “If you don’t stop, the nation of Lebanon and other nations in the region will cut off your dirty hands.’’

Lengthy negotiations lie ahead between Lebanon’s factions as they attempt to build a new government.