June 27, 2009 / 2:00 PM / 9 years ago

Lebanon gets new PM, seeks national unity

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri was appointed prime minister-designate on Saturday, pledging to seek a national unity government but warning that his task would be difficult.

Lebanon's newly appointed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks after meeting Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut June 27,2009. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir

President Michel Suleiman issued a presidential decree designating Sunni Muslim Hariri after 86 parliamentarians in the 128-seat assembly nominated him for the post.

Hariri said he would seek to form a unity government capable of facing the country’s many political, economic and social challenges.

“In line with our commitment during the election campaign in favor of a national unity government in which the main parliamentary blocs are represented ... we will begin consultations with all parliamentary blocs ...,” Hariri said after receiving his designation decree from Suleiman.

“We know that the path to this target won’t be easy and the hurdles and bumps might be more than what is apparent, which is already a lot,” he warned.

The young leader said what was at stake was more serious than forming a government or the allocation of portfolios but rather the very fate of Lebanon during one of the most difficult and critical times in the Middle East’s history.

Hariri, who is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, led a political coalition to victory against Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies in this month’s election. He is the son of statesman Rafik al-Hariri whose assassination in 2005 plunged Lebanon into the worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system reserves the premiership for a Sunni.

In a sign of the difficulties the 39-year-old leader faces in forming a cabinet acceptable to all sides, Hezbollah and its Christian allies refrained from nominating him.

Only 15 out of the minority alliance’s 57 deputies backed him in two days of consultations with Suleiman, adding to support from Hariri’s 71 deputies.

VETO POWER

The main stumbling block facing Hariri is likely to be demands by Hezbollah and its allies that they hold veto power in a new unity government. Hariri rejects such a veto.

Hariri has been keen on securing the backing of his powerful Shi’ite rivals, who are close allies of neighboring Syria, to ensure a smooth launch for his administration.

Immediately after the June 7 election, he called for the contentious issue of disarming Hezbollah to be shelved. The group, labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, has battled Israeli forces since the early 1980s.

It fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, in which 1,200 people died in Lebanon and some 160 in Israel.

Saudi Arabia and Western countries including the United States have been major supporters of Hariri following the 2005 assassination of his father. Hariri led his coalition through a bitter and sometimes bloody power struggle with his rivals.

Sunni-Shi’ite tensions threatened to boil over into a civil war last year when Hezbollah fighters routed Hariri and his allies’ supporters in Beirut and mountains to the east.

Slideshow (3 Images)

A Qatari-sponsored deal in May 2008 defused the crisis but sectarian tensions rose again in the run-up to the election. A warming of ties between Riyadh and Damascus also helped calm the situation and continued cooperation between the two capitals is seen as vital for Lebanon’s stability.

Pursuing justice for his father and other anti-Syrian figures assassinated since 2005 had been one of Hariri’s priorities. He twice passed up the chance of becoming prime minister, preferring to see the post given to his father’s long-time aide, Fouad Siniora.

He has repeatedly accused Syria of the killings but has toned down his anti-Syrian rhetoric since the establishment of an international tribunal to try the killers earlier this year.

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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