A Lebanese Christian Cabinet minister allied with Hezbollah resigned yesterday, making him the sixth minister to quit and further weaken a divided government.
Environment Minister Yaacoub Sarraf joins five Shiite Muslim ministers who on Saturday quit the half-Christian, half-Muslim Cabinet.
Lebanon's National News Agency said Sarraf submitted his resignation in a letter to Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
"I don't see myself belonging to any constitutional authority in which an entire sect is absent," Sarraf wrote in his letter of resignation, according to the agency. "So I am tendering my resignation from your government."
The resignation came just before the Cabinet planned to meet despite an announcement by President Emile Lahoud that the Western-backed Cabinet lost its legitimacy after the resignations of the Hezbollah and Amal ministers.
With Sarraf's resignation, a quarter of the 24-member Cabinet had quit. His move makes it difficult for the Cabinet to govern, but legally it still has the necessary two-thirds quorum to meet and make decisions, although doubts may be raised about the constitutionality of any actions it takes because it lacks Shiite members.
Sarraf is an independent but is allied with the pro-Syrian Lahoud and Hezbollah. He is Greek Orthodox -- Lebanon's second-largest Christian sect.
Saniora swiftly rejected Sarraf's resignation as he did with the other five.
However, yesterday, Hezbollah's two ministers made their resignations official by presenting them in writing to the Cabinet Secretary.
The withdrawal by the five ministers on Saturday left the Shiites, the largest single sect in Lebanon, out of the government. Sarraf's resignation strengthens the Shiites' bid for a larger presence in the Cabinet, now made up of Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druse. It also reduces the sectarian nature of the dispute.
Behind Lebanon's deepening political crisis is a tug-of-war between the US and its Middle Eastern opponents Iran and Syria.
At the center is Hezbollah's demands for a larger role in the Lebanese government, now dominated by anti-Syrian politicians with strong backing from the US and Europe.
The collapse of Lebanon's government would be a major setback to one of the US diplomatic successes in the Middle East.
The US was instrumental in forcing Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon last year in the wake of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, a killing his supporters blamed on Syria.
Syria denied involvement, but mass protests in Beirut and international pressure forced Syria to leave, ending its three-decade dominance of its smaller neighbor. Shortly afterwards, Lebanon held democratic elections -- a rarity in the Arab world -- which brought an anti-Syrian majority to the parliament and Cabinet.
Washington has warned Lebanon's government -- one of the friendliest to the US in over two decades -- is at risk of falling apart. Some in the region have sounded similar warnings, saying giving Hezbollah veto power would bring Lebanon back under the influence of Iran and Syria, the main supporters of the Shiite guerrillas.
If the US-backed government in Lebanon fails, it would embolden Syria and Iran and could increase pressure on Washington to talk with the two countries in an effort to quell sectarian violence in neighboring Iraq.