BEIRUT – Hezbollah, already Lebanon's most potent military force, is now making a bid to expand its political power by installing an ally as prime minister now that it has brought down the government.
If Hezbollah succeeds, the Shiite militant group and its patrons in Iran and Syria would have far more sway in this volatile corner of the Middle East — something Washington has worked to prevent.
"They would have proven that they can dominate Lebanon without using their guns," Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
But success is by no means guaranteed. After Hezbollah and its allies quit the government Wednesday, causing it to collapse, lengthy negotiations lie ahead between Lebanon's Western-backed blocs and the Hezbollah led-alliance known as March 8. And if those fail, Lebanon could see a resurgence of the street protests and violence that have bedeviled the country in the past.
Still, that the militant group even has somewhat realistic sights on the government is a blow to the United States. Washington has tried the past five years to move Lebanon firmly into a Western sphere and put an end to the influence of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
Instead, with military and political might, Hezbollah managed to show that the pro-Western bloc can't run the country without it — and now could go a step further to show it doesn't need its opponents. The movement boasts an arsenal of weapons that far outweighs that of the national army, is backed by millions in Iranian funding and enjoys popular backing from most of Lebanon's Shiites.
The government's collapse plunged the country into political uncertainty after a year of relative stability under Prime Minister Saad Hariri, an ally of the U.S. and other Western powers, in an uneasy unity government with Hezbollah and its allies.
The crisis was the climax of long-simmering tensions over the U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The tribunal is widely expected to indict members of Hezbollah soon, which many fear could rekindle violence in the tiny nation plagued for decades by war and civil strife.
Lebanon suffered through a devastating civil war from 1975-1990, a 1982 Israeli invasion to drive out Palestinian fighters, a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and deadly sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
President Michel Suleiman will launch formal talks Monday on creating a new government, polling lawmakers on their choice before nominating a prime minister. According to Lebanon's constitution, 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 of 4 million.
At the moment, Hariri — now caretaker prime minister — is conferring with international allies for support. He was in Washington meeting President Barack Obama when Hezbollah brought down his government, stopped off in France and was next heading to Turkey.
Hezbollah's allies, meanwhile, said it would be futile for Hariri to stay in the post. Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammed Raad said the next prime minister should be a strong supporter of his group.
"We should agree on the way to administer the country with a strong government headed by someone with a history of national resistance," Raad said.
Politicians in the pro-Western coalition, meanwhile, said there was no alternative to the 40-year-old billionaire Hariri, who remains the most popular choice among Sunnis.
Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian right-wing Lebanese Forces group which is allied with Hariri, said Hariri's backers would name him again as their choice.
"It would be a grave mistake to even think about an alternative to Saad Hariri," he warned Wednesday.
Finding a Sunni candidate might prove the biggest obstacle for Hezbollah. Some analysts believe running against Hariri would be seen by Sunnis as too big a betrayal.
Hezbollah allies insist a Sunni loyal to the movement can be found and garner enough backing in parliament, particularly one from among the Sunni politicians who served in the pre-2005, pro-Syrian governments.
In order to form its own government, Hezbollah also would require the backing of Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect who broke with his former allies in Hariri's camp in 2009. Jumblatt has been a shrewd politician, known for shifting loyalties, and has not indicated his position.
Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, says neither side can accomplish much on its own.
"Hezbollah is much stronger militarily, but this isn't going to be a military battle," Khouri said Thursday. "They have got to find a compromise."
But at least for the moment, neither side is willing to back down on the issue of the tribunal, the cause of the government collapse.
Hezbollah denounces the Netherlands-based tribunal as a conspiracy by the U.S. and Israel. It had demanded Hariri reject any of its findings even before they came out, but Hariri has refused to break cooperation with the court and its investigations.
For the past two months, the dispute had paralyzed the 14-month-old unity government, an uneasy coalition formed in hopes of stabilizing the country. When talks between Syria and Hariri's ally Saudi Arabia failed to find a compromise, Hezbollah walked out of the coalition.
Now, Hezbollah is hoping its withdrawal — something clearly intended to highlight its power — will hand it a stronger bargaining position than ever before. While pre-2005 governments were generally headed by prime ministers supportive of Hezbollah, but Hezbollah members were not part of government then.
A sympathetic prime minister and seats in the Cabinet would give the group unprecedented clout.