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Hezbollah-backed candidate poised to become Lebanon PM

Martin Chulov

Najib Miqati secures majority support in parliament after coalition government fails

January 24 2011

The prospect of a Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon now appears certain after a Syrian-backed businessman emerged from a crucial political summit with the numbers needed to lead the turbulent state.

A narrow majority of 65 of the Lebanese parliament's 128 members indicated their support for telecommunications tycoon Najib Miqati, which means that the ousting of Saad Hariri as prime minister of the US-allied government will soon be formalised.

The high-stakes talks were convened after the Hezbollah-led opposition walked out of a tenuous coalition government two weeks ago, forcing a political crisis with the potential to rupture already brittle sectarian fault-lines.

The support for Miqati means Hariri cannot secure the majority needed to hang on to the narrow mandate he won 18 months ago.

Today Hariri said he and his bloc would not take part in a Hezbollah-led government. Hariri was appointed caretaker prime minister just under two weeks ago, shortly after 11 Hezbollah-aligned ministers abandoned his government, causing it to fall.

Street demonstrations are tonightnight being staged in Sunni areas of Beirut, as well as Tripoli in north Lebanon and Sidon in the south. Tyres were burnt and roads and highways blocked in scenes that have stirred the ghosts of numerous past conflicts and spark fears of a return to sectarian chaos. Protests spread quickly after nightfall, but there were no reports of deaths, or injuries. Security forces seemed reluctant to intervene.

A member of parliament from Hariri's bloc, Khaled Dahar said: "We announce our rejection of the candidate backed by the 'party of arms' [referring to Hezbollah]. What was plotted was a coup by a group that didn't respect the voters' freedom by relying on its weapons to threaten all Lebanese.

"We call on those who reject the Persian scheme in this defiant Arab country to stage a sit-in tomorrow ... in Tripoli," Dahar said, according to the Naharnet website.

Violence had been widely predicted in Lebanon for the past five months as criminal indictments were prepared for delivery to an international tribunal investigating the assassination of former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.

The indictments are widely tipped to implicate members of Hezbollah, which has vowed to discredit them. If asked to form a government by Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman, Miqati will come under intense pressure to carry out Hezbollah's demands that Lebanon withdraw all co-operation with the Hague-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Miqati last week travelled to Damascus to meet Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, who has been widely consulted by Lebanese MPs on events in their homeland. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is another to have sought a hearing with the Syrian president. Six members of Jumblatt's 11-seat bloc on the Lebanese parliament confirmed today that they would align with Miqati.

The ousting of Hariri is a sharp blow to US interests in the Middle East. His government was toppled at the same time as he met Barack Obama in the White House, prompting the US to threaten to withdraw aid money from Lebanon.

Diplomats from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia last week embarked on intense, but apparently unsuccessful rounds of shuttle diplomacy, trying to find a way out of an ever-escalating crisis that could sharply destabilise an already fragile region.

Israel has reacted with alarm at the latest developments, claiming a Hezbollah takeover will consolidate Iranian influence on its northern border.

:: Article nr. 74256 sent on 25-jan-2011 01:58 ECT


Link: www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/24/hezbollah-backed-candidate-lebanon-pm

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