Hezbollah vows no Lebanon party to be left in cold

AFP , Monday 24 Jan 2011

Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged in a speech Sunday that political rivals will be included in the government if the opposition's candidate wins

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks during a news conference in this still image taken from Hezbollah television Al-Manar, 23 January 2011. (AP)

Hezbollah vowed on Sunday to include its political rivals in Lebanon's government if its candidate emerges as premier, hours before MPs were to be consulted on choosing a new prime minister.

"If our candidate is successful, we will ask him to form a government of national partnership in which all parties will participate," Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shia militant group, said in a televised speech.

"We respect everyone's right to representation," he added. "All claims that Hezbollah has plans to install an Iranian or Shia government is distortion, misleading and outright false."

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, whose country fought a devastating 2006 war with the Shia group, warned earlier a Hezbollah-led government would mean "an Iranian government on Israel's northern border."

Fears of sectarian violence are on the rise in Lebanon as feuding parties prepare for a showdown on who will head a new cabinet, more than a week after Hezbollah brought down the unity government of US-backed Saad Hariri.

The speech by Nasrallah, whose movement is backed by Tehran and Damascus, came hours before President Michel Suleiman was due to kick off two days of talks with parliamentary groups to name a new premier.

Hezbollah and its allies have ruled out nominating Hariri, who is also supported by Riyadh, for reappointment. Hariri, however, maintains he is still seeking another second term.

"We were unable to agree on a person, on who should be premier," Nasrallah said. "But that does not at all indicate that the resistance seeks to exclude or cancel out any party in Lebanon."

The vote is expected to be tight and political analysts estimated at the weekend that Lebanon's 128 MPs were equally divided between Hariri and a candidate backed by Hezbollah.

Nasrallah, who struck a conciliatory tone on Sunday, did not confirm who his MPs and their allies would nominate but confirmed that veteran Sunni Muslim politician Omar Karameh had been their top choice for the premiership.

"The truth is that Omar Karameh contacted me and thanked us but said that he was older now and was not in the best of health and that he would rather we found another candidate," Nasrallah said.

"We will decide who our candidate is in the coming hours."

General Michel Aoun, Hezbollah's key Christian ally, meanwhile, said that MPs Mohammed Safadi and Najib Mikati, who represent the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, were also in the running.

Mikati, who headed an interim government in 2005, and Safadi were elected to parliament as allies of Hariri in a 2009 election, while Karameh, also a native of Tripoli, is a two-time premier.

Hariri today heads a 60-seat alliance in the 128-member parliament, against 57 for the Hezbollah-led camp.

The Shia group needs to secure the backing of at least eight MPs outside its coalition in order to guarantee its Sunni Muslim candidate is appointed premier.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who on Friday announced he was siding with Hezbollah in the political feud, now stands to play kingmaker with his 11-strong bloc.

Four MPs representing Tripoli, including Safadi and Mikati, on Sunday were also mulling whether to abstain from naming a premier, Mikati's office told AFP.

The abstentions could tip the scale in favour of Hezbollah, giving way to a cabinet under the command of a premier chosen by the militant group.

Hariri's government collapsed on January 12 when Hezbollah and its allies pulled 11 ministers from the cabinet, capping a long-running dispute over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

The UN-backed STL, tasked with investigating the 2005 assassination of Saad's father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, among others will reportedly indict high-ranking Hezbollah operatives in the murder.

Nasrallah has accused the Netherlands-based tribunal of being under US-Israeli control and has warned against any such accusation.

The standoff has sparked fears of a repeat of May 2008, when an 18-month government crisis culminated in Sunni-Shia gunbattles that left close to 100 people dead and brought Lebanon to the brink of another civil war.

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