Hezbollah at Center of Storm After Saudis Freeze Billions in Aid to Lebanon

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Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wave Hezbollah flags as they listen to him through a giant screen during a rally commemorating the annual Hezbollah Martyrs' Leader Day in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon February 16, 2016.
Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon February 16, 2016.Credit: Reuters

Lebanese politicians traded accusations Saturday over the decision by Saudi Arabia to halt deals worth $4 billion aimed at equipping and supporting Lebanese security forces, adding to tensions in the deeply divided country, which is struggling with the fallout from neighboring Syria's civil war.

The decision was announced by Saudi officials Friday in retaliation for Lebanon's siding with Iran amid the Sunni kingdom's spat with the Shi'ite power.

The small Mediterranean country has a sectarian divide that reflects the wider regional split between Sunni and Shi'ite powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has long been a battlefield where the region's proxy wars play out. The Saudi announcement immediately prompted sharp accusations among Lebanon's notoriously fractious party leaders.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a key ally of Saudi Arabia, blamed the suspension on the Shi'ite group Hezbollah and its Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement.

"Fiery statements offending the Kingdom are rejected and do not represent the policy of Lebanon," he said after a meeting with the Sunni grand mufti on Saturday.

The foreign ministry, which is headed by FPM leader Gibran Bassil, shot back in a statement, calling such accusations "cheap attempts at political exploitation."

The Saudi decision came after Bassil declined to support Saudi resolutions against Iran during two meetings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers. Bassil is the president of the FPM, which is one of the strongest allies of the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are longtime rivals who back opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen. Relations took a turn for the worse at the start of the year, when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric and protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic posts in Iran. That prompted Riyadh to cut diplomatic relations with Tehran.

The Lebanese Foreign Ministry statement recalled its condemnation of the attack on Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Lebanon's long-standing policy of remaining on the sidelines of regional conflicts.

The suspended deals involve a four-year, $3 billion Saudi pledge to buy French arms for the Lebanese military and a $1 billion support deal for the Lebanese police.

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