New Lebanon PM prepares to form govt

2011-01-26 17:01

Beirut - Lebanon's Hezbollah-backed new premier was preparing on Wednesday for talks on forming a government in the deeply divided country as calm returned to the streets after protests over his appointment.

Prime minister designate Najib Mikati, a moderate billionaire businessman, was to make protocol visits to five of his predecessors before launching talks on Thursday with parliamentary groups.

Security was tight and several schools remained closed, but traffic returned to normal following a "day of rage" by supporters of outgoing premier Saad Hariri.

Anti-riot troops patrolled the streets of Beirut and the northern port city of Tripoli, a Sunni bastion and Mikati's hometown, where protests the day before had turned violent. There were no casualties.

Banners reading "Mikati, appointed by Khamenei", Iran's supreme leader, remained hoisted in Tripoli as tanks were deployed outside Mikati's home and offices.

Residents of Tripoli said they planned to set up a tent in a city square around noon to protest his appointment.

Under Lebanon's power-sharing system, the premier must be a Sunni Muslim.

Hezbollah indictments looming

Mikati is a Sunni, but supporters of Hariri, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States, view his appointment as a bid by the Shi'ite militant Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, to gain more political clout.

The 55-year-old tycoon was tasked with forming a new government after Hezbollah and its allies toppled Hariri's cabinet because of a long-running dispute over a UN court probing the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father.

The Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is reportedly readying to indict Hezbollah members in connection with the Hariri murder, a move the militant group has warned against.

Washington on Tuesday accused Hezbollah of wresting government control through intimidation, and vowed that the STL would press on with its work.

In an interview with AFP, Mikati said he planned to address that thorny issue through dialogue.

"Stopping the tribunal today is no longer a Lebanese decision," he said.

He added, however, that Lebanon's co-operation with the tribunal was another question altogether, without elaborating.

Media divided

Mikati also rejected accusation that he was "Hezbollah's man" saying he was not bound by the party's agenda.

"I say in all honesty that my nomination by Hezbollah does not mean I am bound by any of their political positions, except as concerns the protection of the national resistance," the 55-year-old billionaire businessman told AFP in an interview at his Beirut home after his appointment to form a new government.

He was referring to the Shi'ite militant party's struggle against neighbouring Israel.

"Don't prejudge me or my behaviour, please, especially the international community," he added.

Lebanese newspapers were divided on Wednesday as concerns his appointment, with some mourning a "Hezbollah government" and others hailing it as a welcome change.

"Hezbollah's government set to see the light soon," said the front-page headline in the Arabic language daily Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Hariri.

"Now that the 'day of rage' has ended, it has become clear that all that smoke from the burning tyres could not mask the truth, which is that Lebanon has entered a new political phase," read the editorial in As-Safir, close to Hezbollah.

Read more on:    saad hariri  |  najib mikati  |  lebanon
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