Middle East News
Tension Over Beirut Blast Probe Nudges Lebanon into New Crisis

Growing tension over a judicial probe into last year's Beirut port blast threatens to push Lebanon into yet another political crisis, testing Prime Minister Najib Mikati's new government as it struggles to dig the country out of economic collapse.

More than a year since the explosion ripped through Beirut, killing more than 200 people, Judge Tarek Bitar's efforts to hold senior officials to account for suspected negligence are facing mounting political pushback.

Ministers aligned with the politicians Bitar has sought to question were expected to press the demand for his removal at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, after the subject disrupted a stormy session on Tuesday.

But the session was postponed until a framework as to how best to tackle the row over Bitar would be agreed, an official source told Reuters.

It is a big distraction that risks undermining Mikati, who took office last month after more than a year of squabbling over cabinet seats as Lebanon sank deeper into one of the world's worst economic depressions, analysts say.

The row has also underlined the major sway of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which has called for Bitar to be replaced, accusing him of conducting a politicized probe picking on certain people.

The most senior politician Bitar has sought to question, former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, said all options were open for political escalation when asked during an interview on Tuesday whether some ministers could quit.

Khalil is the right-hand man of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri - the most senior Shi'ite in the state - and a close Hezbollah ally. Khalil told al-Mayadeen TV the path of the probe threatened to push Lebanon "towards civil strife".

Hezbollah and its Shi'ite ally Amal have pulled their ministers out of government at times of political conflict, a move that would torpedo the Sunni-led cabinet by stripping it of Shi'ite representation.

# Middle East # Beirut Disaster # Lebanon # Hezbollah
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