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Premier set for return to Lebanon

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Photographs by AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

A Lebanese woman holds a placard supporting the outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to return from Saudi Arabia during the Beirut Marathon, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. Absent from the marathon this year is Hariri, a regular participant, who resigned from his post unexpectedly last week while in Saudi Arabia. The country's President Michel Aoun urged runners to call on the prime minister to return home.

BEIRUT -- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Sunday that he will return to his country "within days" amid a political crisis that arose when he announced his sudden resignation on Nov. 4 in Saudi Arabia.

In a live interview shown on Future TV, Hariri said he had resigned to protect Lebanon from imminent danger, although he didn't specify who was threatening the country. He said he will return to submit his resignation and seek a settlement with his rivals in the coalition government, the militant group Hezbollah.

Hariri said withdrawing his resignation would be conditional on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah committing to remaining neutral on regional conflicts. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to neighboring Syria to support the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"If we want to revoke the resignation, we should respect neutrality and withdraw from regional interferences," Hariri said. "We cannot have any more ambiguity around Lebanon's neutrality."

During the interview from Saudi Arabia, which lasted more than an hour, Hariri held back tears as he spoke and repeated several times that he resigned to draw attention to the danger of siding with Iran in regional conflicts.

"We are in the eye of the storm," Hariri said.

He said the unity government he formed a year ago was supposed to stick to an agreement not to interfere in regional affairs but that Hezbollah has not kept up its end of the deal.

Hariri sought to dispel speculation that Saudi Arabia summoned him to Riyadh and broadsided him with a demand to resign because he wouldn't confront the Hezbollah militant group -- an accusation the kingdom has denied. The political turmoil has thrust Lebanon to the fore of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry after it managed to avoid the worst of the Syrian civil war next door, creating a potential new center of conflict in the Middle East.

"I am free in the kingdom," the Lebanese leader said in the interview. Speaking with a Lebanese flag in the background, he insisted that he wrote his own resignation speech and that he took that step for the benefit of all Lebanese.

He said his resignation was his own decision, dismissing reports he was forced into it. But he also said he is looking into security arrangements before returning to Lebanon, suggesting his life was in danger.

"I saw what happened ... when my father was martyred. I don't want the same thing to happen to me," Hariri said. His father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 2005.

Hariri has been under pressure from Lebanese officials who said the resignation was not accepted because it was declared in Saudi Arabia.

Hariri said his resignation was designed to "cause a positive shock" in Lebanon, warning against what he said was Iranian interference that is ruining relations with other Arab countries.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said before the interview that the "mysterious circumstances for Hariri's stay in the Saudi capital of Riyadh makes all his positions questionable and in doubt and not of his own volition."

A dual Lebanese-Saudi national, the Saudi-allied Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation Nov. 4 in a pre-recorded message on Saudi TV, criticizing Iran and Hezbollah and saying he feared for his safety. Hariri's family lives in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

Hariri had not been heard from since, but he met with foreign diplomats and appeared with Saudi royalty and in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia has stepped up its rhetoric against Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, accusing both of supporting Shiite rebels in Yemen known as Houthis. A Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Houthis since March 2015.

Hariri said relations between Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah soured after the conflict began in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has asked its citizens to leave Lebanon, and many Lebanese fear further economic sanctions or even military action against their country.

The Saudis had not estimated the kind of shock and backlash that Hariri's resignation would create, said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. The Lebanese markets will "to some extent" breathe a sigh of relief today, "but I don't think that people will calm down until they actually see him in person in Lebanon with his family with him."

Several Lebanese TV stations, including NBN TV, owned by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, didn't broadcast the Hariri interview -- adopting Aoun's position that given Hariri's circumstances, "his words will not reflect the truth." Both Berri and Aoun are allied with Hezbollah.

Hariri, 47, first took the post of prime minister in November 2009 and held it for nearly two years before Hezbollah forced the collapse of his government. Hezbollah ministers withdrew because of differences over a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating his father's assassination.

Hariri was appointed prime minister in late 2016 and led a 30-member coalition government that included Hezbollah. But it has been an uneasy partnership between Hariri, who heads a Sunni-led camp loyal to Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah, which represents a faction loyal to Shiite Iran.

A business graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, he led his father's Saudi-based construction business for years. The company struggled with debts for years before closing down in July.

Hariri was born in Riyadh in 1970. He is Rafik Hariri's second son from his first Iraqi wife. Saad Hariri is married to a Syrian, and has three children, the oldest an 18-year-old son.

Earlier Sunday, thousands of people attending Lebanon's annual marathon used the event to urge Hariri to return home.

Hariri was a regular participant in the marathon, giving the international sports event a big boost. This year, Aoun encouraged runners to call on Hariri to return. Organizers said more than 47,000 people participated in the marathon.

Spectators along the marathon course wore hats and held signs reading "Running for you" and "Waiting for you." Large billboards with pictures of Hariri loomed overhead, and a local TV station showed an hourlong profile and interview with Hariri from last year.

One woman raised a placard reading: "We want our prime minister back."

Ibrahim al-Masri, a 37-year-old Hariri supporter, said the Lebanese didn't know whether it was Hariri's choice to stay in Saudi Arabia.

"Whatever he chooses, we are with him. We want him to first come to Lebanon. We will die for him," al-Masri said.

Joanne Hamza, a physical education teacher who wore a cap with a picture of Hariri on it, said he was missed at the race.

"But in a sense, his absence has been unifying. All Lebanese, from all sects, are missing their leader. This is somehow reassuring, but we still want him with us."

In the northern city of Tripoli on Saturday, unknown assailants burned posters of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a sign of the rising tensions. Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk tweeted that those acts did not reflect the "true feelings" of the people of Tripoli or Lebanon, and he called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Information for this article was contributed by Sarah El Deeb and Zeina Karam of The Associated Press and by Donna Abu-Nasr and Zaid Sabah of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 11/13/2017

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