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Talks fail, Shiites resign in Lebanon

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon was thrown into a political crisis Saturday when talks broke down over giving the militant faction Hezbollah and its political allies greater control of the government.

Almost immediately, Cabinet ministers from the group and the other main Shiite party resigned.

Lebanon's political leaders have conducted talks for four days, trying to defuse tensions among the various government factions after Hezbollah demanded a greater role in the Cabinet and called for its alliance to have veto power over all government decisions. Hezbollah was politically emboldened after its 34-day war with Israel this summer, and it quickly pressed for more power.

Though for days it appeared the talks were headed toward a compromise, the negotiations collapsed when Hezbollah refused to relinquish its demand for a veto, people in the talks said. When the governing coalition refused, the talks collapsed and within three hours all of the Shiite ministers resigned.

Under the accord that ended the civil war, called the Taif Agreement and signed in 1989, the government must have members of all the country's main sects. With the departure of the Shiites, it now becomes an interim government with the authority only to handle day-to-day management of the country.

"It is an escalation," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at American University of Beirut. "They are telling them they are willing to stage confrontations."

Lebanon's political stability, and the success or failure of the current government, is not just consequential for this country of 4 million. It is part of a broader contest between the United States, which backs the government coalition, and Iran and Syria, which support Hezbollah.

One of the crucial decisions coming up, and one that cannot be addressed by an interim government, is whether to approve a law to participate in an international tribunal on the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. The investigation into the killing has implicated Syrian officials. And on Friday, the U.N. Security Council presented Lebanon with a draft proposal for a framework of a tribunal to pursue the case.

Former President Amine Gemayel, leader of the small Christian Phalange party, said Saturday that the mood in the room during the negotiations was "cold, very cold." He said that the governing coalition was adamant about not giving Hezbollah the one-third plus one seats it would need for veto power.

"They are still insisting on having the third of the government," Gemayel said Saturday after leaving the negotiations. "It is a way in fact to control completely the government and the very existence of the government."