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Hezbollah sees progress on Lebanon government

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A leading member of the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah said on Tuesday there was progress in talks toward the formation of a new government to be headed by the billionaire Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri.

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (R) meets with Lebanon's Parliament majority leader Saad al-Hariri in Beirut's suburbs June 25, 2009. REUTERS/HANDOUT/ HEZBOLLAH MEDIA OFFICE

Hariri, designated prime minister a month ago, is aiming to form a coalition cabinet grouping his “March 14” alliance with a rival coalition including the powerful Iran- and Syria-backed Hezbollah and its allies.

Hariri’s alliance, supported by countries including the United States and Saudi Arabia, defeated Hezbollah and its allies in a June 7 parliamentary election.

Hariri, 39, has said very little about his talks. His task is seen as complicated by differences between the factions on how to share seats in the new cabinet and the influence of the rival states that back the opposing sides.

“We have felt progress ... which could lay the ground for more progress in the next few days,” Mohammad Raad, leader of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, told reporters after talks with President Michel Suleiman.

Hezbollah and its allies in the minority alliance have been demanding effective veto power in the new government. That would extend an existing power-sharing arrangement agreed last year as part of a Qatari-brokered deal. Hariri’s allies have rejected the idea, though he has not commented on it since the election.

A senior politician told Reuters there was agreement on dividing seats in a new 30-minister government in a way that would give neither Hariri’s alliance an absolute majority nor Hezbollah and its allies veto power.

President Suleiman would be given a decisive say by being allowed to nominate five ministers, including one Shi’ite to be approved by Hezbollah and its ally the Shi’ite Amal movement.

A smooth cabinet formation is vital to underpinning confidence in Lebanon, one of the most heavily indebted states in the world. The country has enjoyed a spell of relative calm this year following four years of turmoil unleashed by the 2005 assassination of statesman Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father.

A power struggle between the rival alliances pushed Lebanon into a brief bout of armed conflict last year which was halted by the Qatari-mediated Doha agreement.

The fate of a powerful guerrilla army operated by Hezbollah, a group listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, remains one of the most contentious issues in Lebanon.

Reporting by Laila Bassam and Tom Perry; Editing by Samia Nakhoul