February 26, 2008 / 8:47 PM / 12 years ago

INTERVIEW-Jumblatt sees drawn-out struggle for Lebanon

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt said on Tuesday he saw no end in sight to the deep political conflict between his Western-backed governing coalition and the opposition backed by Syria and Iran. Jumblatt, an influential member of the anti-Damascus governing alliance, accused opposition group Hezbollah of providing military training to its Lebanese allies. But the political dispute would not turn into armed conflict, he said.

The 15-month-old standoff for control of government has led to bouts of lethal street violence between followers of the rival leaders. Their dispute is Lebanon’s worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

"I don’t think there is going to be an armed conflict," Jumblatt told Reuters in an interview. "It will really be to the disadvantage of everybody," he said, describing recent street violence as "skirmishes".

"I don’t see it, for the time being, as dangerous," said Jumblatt, the most powerful Druze leader in Lebanon — a country with a sectarian power-sharing political system.

"We started peacefully, we’ll continue peacefully."

Jumblatt has toned down his statements since earlier this month, when he said that if the powerful and heavily-armed Hezbollah wanted war, "(we) welcome war".

Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, backed by both Syria and Shi’ite Iran, was the only Lebanese group allowed to keep its weapons after the civil war, to fight Israeli troops which occupied the south until 2000. Hezbollah "are training (allied groups) in their camps", said Jumblatt. "What can we do?"

Jumblatt’s coalition, which is led by Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri, also accuses the opposition of seeking to restore Syrian control of Lebanon.

"TRIGGER"

Damascus dominated its neighbour until 2005 but the assassination that year of statesman Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father, triggered international pressure that forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

The rival camps have been tussling for control of government since November, 2006. Mediators have failed to resolve a power struggle that has left the presidency vacant for three months and poisoned ties among Arab states.

Jumblatt said his alliance would not give in to the opposition’s demand for effective veto power in cabinet. He accused Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah of trying to intimidate the governing coalition.

"He’s just fixing the trigger on your head and telling you: I’m making you an offer you cannot refuse," Jumblatt said.

"Well, up to now I have refused," he said. The governing coalition, which is backed by Arab states including Saudi Arabia, would not yield, he added.

"We are going through endless disputes," said Jumblatt. The situation could last for a "very long" time, he added, singling out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for blame.

"As long as Bashar is secure, the Syrian regime is secure, and as long as we are faced by this Iranian imperialism or expansionism in the Middle East, Lebanon will be in trouble."

Lebanon is at the heart of a diplomatic rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah is unlikely to attend an Arab summit in Damascus next month unless the crisis is resolved.

"I think nothing will come out of the Arab summit because the Arab world is divided," Jumblatt said, adding: "Unless there are miracles. I don’t believe in miracles." (Editing by Andrew Roche)



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