New Lebanon PM prepares to form government

AFP , Wednesday 26 Jan 2011

Lebanon's new premier begins talks for government formation; leading Saudi papers criticise outgoing Hariri for egging Hezbollah on with violent protests

Mikati and Hariri
Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, right, meets with Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, left, at Hariri's residence in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, 26 January 2011. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Lebanon's new, Hezbollah-backed 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 billionaire businessman, made protocol visits to five of his predecessors before he launches talks on Thursday with parliamentary groups to form a new government.

Security was tight and several schools remained closed, but there were no reports of violence and traffic returned to normal following a "day of rage" by supporters of outgoing premier Saad Al-Hariri.

Anti-riot troops patrolled the streets of Beirut and the northern port city of Tripoli, a Sunni bastion and Mikati's hometown, where two days of protests had turned violent.

The prime minister designate has dismissed any suggestion that he is "Hezbollah's man" and so did the party leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Hariri and his allies in the "March 14" alliance have refused to participate in Mikati's government and on Wednesday began to assume their new role as the opposition.

"Mikati's government is Hezbollah's government under Hezbollah's conditions," said former MP Mustafa Alloush, a leader member of Hariri's Future Movement. "Therefore it is out of the question that March 14 participate in this government."

Hariri's bloc also released a statement denouncing Hezbollah's so called "coup" and setting out their objectives.

"Today we announce a new phase with two objectives: support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and the disarmament of all parties," it said in reference to the large arsenal retained by Hezbollah, which fought in the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon.

Mikati was tasked with forming a new government after Hezbollah and its allies resigned from Hariri's government after a long-running dispute over the US-backed STL, which is probing the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafiq Al-Hariri.

The Netherlands-based STL is reportedly readying to indict Hezbollah affiliates in connection with the Hariri murder, a move the Shia group has warned against declaring it was an Israeli-American plot.

In an interview with AFP, Mikati said stopping the tribunal was no longer a Lebanese decision, but added that Lebanon's cooperation with the tribunal was another question altogether, without elaborating.

"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 after his appointment, referring to Hezbollah's struggle against Israel.

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

Israel accused Iran and Hezbollah of taking Lebanon "hostage".

Saudi Arabia advised its citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon.

Writing in leading Saudi-owned newspapers, two prominent Saudi writers criticised Hariri in editorials, saying his supporters used sectarian language and aped Hezbollah with violent protests.

In an editorial in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, Daud al-Shiryan wrote that Hariri's departure "is not the end of the world," and he must "accept the rules of democracy" and support Mikati as premier.

Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the Damascus government, levelled similar criticism. "The March 14 forces have not accepted political failure, they have resorted to (violence), for which they denounced" Hezbollah, the paper said.

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