/ 26 June 2009

Lebanon’s Hariri set to become prime minister

A large majority of members of Lebanon’s Parliament will nominate United States-backed Saad al-Hariri for the post of prime minister, paving the way for his appointment later this week, political sources said on Friday.

President Michel Suleiman will hold consultations with parliamentarians later on Friday and on Saturday to decide on the next prime minister. On Saturday he will designate the candidate with most support.

Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system reserves the premiership to a Sunni Muslim.

The sources said Hariri, a Sunni, would be nominated by his coalition’s 71 MPs in the 128-seat assembly as well as the 25 parliamentarians of Hezbollah and its Shi’ite Amal ally.

Hariri, who led a US-backed coalition to victory over Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies in this month’s election, met Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah overnight.

A joint statement by both men said the leaders, who had only met once before in three years, had held talks and discussed the outcome of the election and the possible shape of the new government.

”They also agreed on continuing discussions in the current positive calm atmosphere and stressed the logic of dialogue, cooperation and openness,” it said.

Hezbollah had called for the formation of a national unity government with veto power for the minority alliance after the parliamentary election, though the group has not repeated the demand since the vote. Hariri rejects such a veto.

While his majority coalition could nominate him and effectively appoint him to the post, Hariri had been keen on getting the backing of his powerful rivals to ensure a smooth launch of his administration.

He offered to open a new page immediately after the election and called for the shelving of the contentious issue of disarming Hezbollah. The group, labelled as terrorist by the US, has battled Israeli forces since the early 1980s.

It fought a 34-day battle against Israel in 2006 in which 1 200 people died in Lebanon and about 160 in Israel.

Saudi Arabia and Western countries including the US have been major supporters of Hariri, whose father Rafik was assassinated in 2005, and his allies in their power struggle with rivals backed by Syria and Iran.

The meeting between Hariri and Nasrallah is also set to defuse Sunni-Shi’ite tensions that threatened to boil over into a civil war last year when Hezbollah fighters routed Hariri and his allies’ supporters in Beirut and mountains to the east.

A Qatari-sponsored deal in May 2008 ended the crisis but sectarian tensions rose again in the run-up to the election.

Hariri (39) was thrown into politics in 2005 by the assassination of his father, becoming the strongest Sunni leader in a country where politics is defined by a sectarian political system.

Pursuing justice for the killers of his father and other anti-Syrian figures assassinated since 2005 had been one of Hariri’s priorities. He twice passed on the chance of becoming prime minister, preferring to giving the post to his father’s senior aide Fouad Siniora.

He had repeatedly accused Syria of the killings but has toned down his anti-Syrian rhetoric after the March establishment of an international tribunal to try the killers. — Reuters