February 14, 2016 / 6:05 PM / 2 years ago

Hariri says Lebanon will never be an "Iranian province"

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri said on Sunday Lebanon would never be an “Iranian province” hostile to Saudi Arabia, and attacked Shi‘ite Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war in a speech reflecting regional tensions.

Lebanon's former prime minister Saad al-Hariri addresses his supporters during the 11th anniversary of the assassination of his father, Rafik al-Hariri, in Beirut, Lebanon, February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban

The former prime minister was speaking in Beirut on the 11th anniversary of the assassination of his father, Rafik al-Hariri. It was only his third visit to the country since the Hezbollah-dominated March 8 alliance toppled his cabinet in 2011.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which both have powerful influence in Lebanon and support rival political blocs, are contributing to conflicts across the Middle East, including in Syria.

“We will not allow anyone to pull Lebanon to the camp of hostility toward Saudi Arabia and its Arab brothers. Lebanon will not be, under any circumstances, an Iranian province. We are Arabs, and Arabs we shall remain,” said Hariri, who is backed by Saudi Arabia.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, is fighting alongside the Syrian army in support of President Bashar al-Assad in a war against insurgents who have received backing from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other states.

Five Hezbollah members have been indicted by an international tribunal over the 2005 killing of Rafik al-Hariri.

The group has denied any involvement in the killing, which pushed Lebanon to the brink of civil war and still stirs emotions 11 years later. The killing deepened a sectarian divide in Lebanon’s politics that still affects it to this day.

Hariri, whose last visit to Lebanon was for the 10th anniversary, heads the March 14 political alliance that was forged in the aftermath of his father’s assassination.

He publicly confirmed for the first time that late last year he put forward a proposal for Suleiman Franjieh, an ally of Hezbollah and friend of Assad, to fill the post of president that has been vacant for 21 months.

But he questioned whether his political rivals really wanted an end to the crisis that reflects wider paralysis in Lebanese government. His initiative has not gained traction. Hezbollah says it is sticking by its preferred candidate, Michel Aoun.

“We are sincere. We want a president of the republic. We want to be rid of the vacuum. We have paid the price at home and abroad,” Hariri said.

But addressing his rivals, he said: “Please go to the parliament and elect a president, unless your real candidate is the vacuum.”

Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Dominic Evans

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