BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia has abandoned efforts to mediate in Lebanon’s political crisis, removing a key U.S. ally from talks to ease tensions after Hezbollah toppled the government in Beirut last week.
In an interview Wednesday with the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the Saudi king has decided he is “withdrawing his hand” from Lebanon.
It was a major blow to outside efforts to avoid a new outbreak of violence between the country’s Western-backed political coalition and its rivals in the Shiite militant group.
The political crisis stems from a U.N. court investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni leader who was a close ally of the Saudis.
The Shiite Hezbollah, which denies any role in Hariri’s 2005 killing, forced the collapse of Lebanon’s Western-backed government last week when Prime Minister Saad Hariri — the son of the slain leader — refused to renounce the tribunal.
The Iran- and Syria-sponsored Hezbollah says the tribunal is a conspiracy by Israel and the United States.
The effort by Syria and Saudi Arabia to mediate between the rival camps they back in Lebanon had been touted by Lebanese and Arab leaders as the best hope to defuse tensions in one of the most volatile corners of the Middle East.
Al-Faisal said the decision to pull out was made after the Saudi-Syrian contacts collapsed. He did not elaborate.
The withdrawal of Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia from mediation efforts is seen as a worrisome sign that the crisis may have reached a point whereby a diplomatic settlement can no longer be attained.
It also leaves more room for maneuvering by Hezbollah backers Syria and Iran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech on Wednesday that Lebanon must keep “evil hands” from meddling in its affairs — a clear reference to the U.S. and its allies that support the U.N. investigation into Hariri’s assassination.
“Hands off Lebanon,” he 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.”
Asked about the situation in Lebanon, al-Faisal said: “It’s dangerous, particularly if it reaches separatism or the partition of Lebanon. This would mean the end of Lebanon as a model of peaceful coexistence between religions and ethnicities and different factions.”
Hezbollah ordered its allied Cabinet ministers out of the fragile unity government last week when an initial Saudi-Syrian mediation effort reached a dead end. The group blamed U.S. interference for the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative and said Hariri had succumbed to U.S. pressure.
Many fear the political crisis could lead to street protests and violence that have been the scourge of this tiny Arab country of 4 million people for years, including a devastating 1975-1990 civil war and sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
The Hague-based tribunal released a sealed indictment in the case on Tuesday, but its contents may not become public for weeks as Belgian judge Daniel Fransen decides whether there is enough evidence for a trial.
Lengthy negotiations lie ahead between Lebanon’s factions as they attempt to build a new government. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Turkey’s foreign minister was in Beirut in a coordinated visit with Qatar’s prime minister to discuss the political crisis in Lebanon.
The officials met with Saad Hariri — who is staying on as a caretaker prime minister — and, separately, with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
According to Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the president must be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite. Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon’s population.