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Lebanese 'kingmaker' in the spotlight again

By Nic Robertson, CNN
Influential Druze leader Walid Jumblatt faces the world's media as he gives Hezbollah his support.
Influential Druze leader Walid Jumblatt faces the world's media as he gives Hezbollah his support.
  • Walid Jumblatt is leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) in Lebanon
  • Has indicated he will back Hezbollah in its efforts to form a new coalition
  • Prime Minister Saad Hariri's unity cabinet collapsed last week
  • Lebanon
  • Walid Jumblatt
  • Hezbollah

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- Waiting for Walid Jumblatt was more than just another moment in the rich mosaic of Middle East politics.

Half an hour before he was due to appear at a press conference, cameramen were already jostling for position in the lofty crowded first floor hall of his Beirut house.

"Kingmaker" in Lebanese politics from the minority Muslim Druze sect, and constantly constricted by the country's confessional politics, Jumblatt is the man in the middle and today the man on whom all eyes are focusing.

For what we will hear will be more than a pronouncement of his political intent, who he will back to be the next prime minister. It will also be an insight into the United States' regional influence.

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Jumblatt has been more than kingmaker in the past, he has been a political weathervane, reading the road ahead and anticipating who is in the ascendancy and aligning himself accordingly.

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Above the melee of swinging handbags and mass of microphone cables matting the floor, a huge picture of Jumblatt's father Kamal hangs on the wall. It could not be more poignant.

He was assassinated in 1977, allegedly by the Syrian regime. In the interests of his sect his son Walid quickly made up with the alleged murderers.

Today it is the interim Prime Minister Saad Hariri who faces the same dilemma. Forgive the people suspected of killing his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, with a car bomb in 2005 or pursue them through the U.N.-backed special tribunal on Lebanon?

It is his decision to do the latter, encouraged by his allies in the west, chief among them the United States, in the face of opposition from the well armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah that has helped bring the country to its current crisis.

As the tribunal nears an indictment, Hezbollah has pulled its ministers from the national unity government, collapsing the fragile institution. And that's what has brought us to Jumblatt's teeming first floor hall this day.

When he arrives, his tall slender frame seems to show the weight of the issues bearing down on him. He is a little more stooped, round shouldered, and older looking than the last time we met a few years ago.

Despite his height, as he sits down he almost disappears behind the pyramid of microphones piled up on the tiny desk in front of him. It would almost be comical but for the importance of the moment.

He's been here before. Forced to pick sides in the interests of national unity. He wears the patience of a man all too familiar with what he must do.

The hundred-plus journalists crowded into the room have barely quietened. The cacophony that rose to a crescendo as he entered slowly, very slowly subsides.

Jumblatt waits. He appears in no rush, yet his words could calm or inflame the tense streets outside.

Twenty years may have passed since Lebanon's civil war subsided but there has been precious little substantive peace and reconciliation. Fears the current crisis could slip towards the same horrors are very real.

But finally, after all the waiting and pushing and shoving here, Jumblatt's decision to jump sides from the U.S.-backed faction of the outgoing Hariri to Iran-backed Hezbollah, is dealing not just Hariri a blow but the United States too.

There is no guarantee Jumblatt's 11 member block will follow suit and hand Hezbollah and its allies the right to chose the next prime minister but in his justification provides clues to why the United States is losing its influence -- not just here but across the region as a whole.

Jumblatt accused the tribunal on Lebanon of going off course from justice and in to politics, a coded version of Hezbollah's claim that Saudi-Syrian talks aimed at defusing Lebanese tensions were scuppered by the U.S. insistence the tribunal complete its work.

Ten years ago, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jumblatt might have had a harder time selling the notion the U.S. was meddling negatively in Middle East affairs, but it is such a common conviction here now. However bitter it may be for him to side with Hezbollah, with this line of reasoning he can be fairly sure his supporters will stick with him.

His rationale goes further. Without compromise, his compromise, the risk of bloody sectarian violence will increase.

By choosing to back Hezbollah he is acknowledging what everyone knows as fact: Hezbollah's Iranian supplied military wing far outguns the Lebanese army, even with it's recent U.S. heavy weapons supplies. So when Hezbollah hints at violence as its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, did in a thinly veiled speech earlier in the week, it's a warning no one can take lightly.

The facts on the ground here and the perceptions in people's minds are outpacing the United States' ability to keep a firm grip on this important middle east country.