Lebanese PM on final stretch of cabinet formation

AFP , Wednesday 9 Feb 2011

Lebanon's new prime minister expects to form his cabinet this week

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati. (AP)

Lebanese premier-designate Najib Mikati expects this week to form his cabinet, which will include members of a Hezbollah-led camp but exclude his Western-backed rivals, an official said Tuesday.

"Prime minister Mikati hopes to finalize his consultations and form the government this week," the official, who is close to the premier, told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"The next government will include representatives of the new majority, centrists and technocrats," he said, adding that the size of the cabinet had not been finalised yet but would likely count 24 to 30 ministers.

The "centrists" would be appointed into office by Mikati and President Michel Suleiman, who has positioned himself as a politically neutral figure in Lebanon.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah, also said he expected Mikati to complete his cabinet formation in the next few days.

"The government will see the light this week," Berri told reporters at a conference in Qatar on Tuesday. "But it would appear that some parties have no desire to participate in a government of national salvation."

Hezbollah, which is backed by both Tehran and Damascus, last month toppled the Hariri government and succeeded in ushering Mikati in to replace him, thanks to the key parliamentary votes of its Christian and Druze allies.

The move prompted a wave of anger among the allies and supporters of US- and Saudi-backed Hariri, who accuse Shiite Hezbollah of a "coup" and of attempting to unilaterally control government.

Amin Gemayel, a Christian ally of Hariri, announced Monday that talks on their alliance's participation in government had reached a dead end.

At the centre of the political deadlock is the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the February 2005 assassination of Sunni ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father.

Hezbollah had been pressuring Hariri for months to disavow the tribunal before it forced the collapse of his government on January 12 over the investigation.

The court is reportedly poised to indict Hezbollah members in connection with the Hariri case, a move the militant movement has warned against.

While Hezbollah has demanded Lebanon end all cooperation with the tribunal, the outgoing Hariri has sought a commitment from fellow billionaire Mikati to see the investigation through.

But Mikati has refused to make any promises on the issue.

"The prime minister designate's response to the demands of Hariri's camp has not changed from the beginning and he cannot make any commitments to either side as that would cause him to lose his position as a centrist," said the official working with Mikati.

The United States, France and other countries have adopted a wait-and-see approach to Mikati's appointment while he forms his government and tackles the thorny issue of the tribunal.

"The nature of the United States' relationship with the new government will be determined by that government's composition, policy statement and behavior," US ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly said Tuesday in a statement.

"The international community has made clear its expectation that the next government of Lebanon should live up to its international obligations ... and uphold Lebanon's commitment to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon."

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