New premier pledges to shield Lebanon from Syria dangers
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese politician Tammam Salam was named prime minister on Saturday after he won a sweeping parliamentary endorsement, pledging to bridge the country's deep divisions and shield it from the dangers of neighboring Syria's civil war.
Salam was designated after the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose two years in office were dominated by efforts to contain sectarian tensions, violence and economic fallout from the Syrian conflict.
His immediate task, if he is able to form a cabinet accepted by Lebanon's rival political forces, will be to prepare for a parliamentary election which is due in June but faces delay.
The Syrian bloodshed has exacerbated tensions in Lebanon, which fought a ruinous civil war from 1975 to 1990. Rival Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim and Christian politicians have failed to agree an electoral system under which the vote will take place.
In his first comments after his appointment, Salam said he would seek to "unite opinion and reach speedy agreement on a parliamentary electoral law to achieve fair representation for all citizens and sects".
He also pledged to focus on "ending Lebanon's political divisions and its impact on the security situation, and averting the dangers from the neighboring tragedy (in Syria)".
Salam, born in 1945 into a prominent Sunni political dynasty, is close to the Saudi- and Western-backed March 14 coalition but was chosen as a consensus candidate acceptable to the March 8 bloc, which includes the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its mainly Shi'ite and Christian allies.
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.
Referring to speculation over whether his government should be a short-term technocratic administration focused only on preparing for elections, or a 'national unity' government with longer-term ambition, Salam said: "I will absolutely strive to form a government of national benefit".
In a sign of shifting foreign influence in Lebanon, whose politicians lived in the shadow of Damascus long after President Bashar al-Assad withdrew his army eight years ago, Salam's elevation appear to owe much to Saudi intervention.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose announcement on Thursday that he backed March 14's nomination guaranteed Salam a parliamentary majority, said he reached his decision after talks with Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
Despite the overwhelming support for Salam - he was backed by at least 120 of 128 parliamentarians - he may face a lengthy struggle to form a government. His predecessor, Mikati, took five months assemble a ministerial team and a March 8 source said Salam could also take months to put together a cabinet.
He has to satisfy conflicting demands for portfolios amid a heightened political standoff over the Syrian crisis.
March 14 strongly supports the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels battling to overthrow Assad in a conflict which the United Nations says has killed 70,000 people. Another 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 has 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.
Before his resignation, Mikati called for international aid to help Lebanon deal with the impact of the ever-growing number of refugees. President Michel 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.
Salam, a cabinet minister from 2008 to 2009, is the son of former prime minister Saeb Salam. His grandfather served under the Ottoman Empire and the French colonial mandate.
(edited by Richard Meares)