Hezbollah bloc, rivals back Salam for Lebanon premier

BEIRUT Fri Apr 5, 2013 1:35pm EDT

Lebanese former minister Tammam Salam attends a meeting for pro-Western March 14 political coalition in Beirut April 4, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Lebanese former minister Tammam Salam attends a meeting for pro-Western March 14 political coalition in Beirut April 4, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, its allies and pro-Western rivals on Friday backed Sunni politician Tammam Salam to be Lebanon's new prime minister, handing him an overwhelming parliamentary endorsement to form a government.

Salam was endorsed by more than 80 of 128 members of parliament in the first day of talks held by President Michel Suleiman to nominate a successor to Najib Mikati.

Mikati resigned last month after two fraught years in office during which he sought to contain sectarian tensions, street violence and economic fallout from the civil war raging in neighboring Syria. The talks will end Saturday.

Salam's main task will be to steer the fractious country towards a parliamentary election which is due in June but is now widely expected to face delays.

Mikati resigned following a cabinet dispute with Hezbollah and its allies - who brought him to power in early 2011 - over extending the term of a top security official and preparations for the parliamentary vote.

A former minister from a prominent political dynasty, Salam won the backing on Thursday of the Saudi- and Western-backed March 14 political coalition after talks brokered in Saudi Arabia. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose seven parliamentary seats hold the balance of power, also backed him.

A Sunni Muslim, as all Lebanese prime ministers must be under the country's confessional distribution of power, Salam is seen as close to March 14, but independent enough to be acceptable to Hezbollah's March 8 bloc.

Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, whose Shi'ite Amal movement is part of the March 8 coalition, threw his support behind Salam on Friday and called on all political sides to work together.

But a source in March 8 warned that despite overwhelming support, it "might still be months" before the former culture minister can form a cabinet acceptable to all sides.

SYRIA DIVIDES LEBANON

March 14 groups mainly Sunni and Christian parties which pushed, with U.S. and European support, for Syria to end nearly three decades of military presence in Lebanon in 2005.

It has strongly supported the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria, where the United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed and 400,000 refugees have poured into Lebanon, a country of just 4 million.

March 8 has backed Assad's campaign to crush the uprising, which began with mainly peaceful protests but descended into a civil war which reduced parts of its main cities to rubble.

Lebanon itself has been shaken by the violence, which has spilled across the border into the Bekaa Valley and inflamed tensions in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunni Muslims who actively support the Syrian rebels and members of Assad's minority Alawite community.

Dozens of people have been killed in the northern city of Tripoli in waves of street fighting since 2011.

The influx of mainly Sunni refugees is politically sensitive in Lebanon, whose rival sects fought a civil war from 1975 to 1990.

Before his resignation, Mikati called for international aid to help Lebanon deal with the impact of the ever-growing number of refugees. President Suleiman called this week for refugee camps to be set up inside Syria itself, under United Nations auspices, to ease the burden on Syria's neighbors.

Born in 1945, Salam is the son of former prime minister Saeb Salam. His grandfather served under the Ottoman Empire and the French colonial mandate. He himself was a cabinet minister in 2008 and 2009.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; editing by Mike Collett-White)