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Lebanon's Hariri takes time out after ally quits

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri has taken a holiday to “think and reflect” after a once close ally quit his anti-Syria coalition in a move expected to delay the formation of a new government.

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

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s departure from Hariri’s “March 14” alliance this week has redrawn Lebanon’s political map and undermined the coalition’s June parliamentary election victory over rivals including the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group.

Hariri, a Saudi- and U.S.-backed billionaire businessman, had been expected to conclude talks this week on the formation of a coalition government grouping his alliance with parties allied to Syria, including Hezbollah and the Amal movement.

But he left the country Monday night for a holiday, his media office said. The trip aimed to give Hariri a chance to “think and reflect calmly,” according to a statement released after a meeting of MPs from his Future Movement.

Hariri wanted to “take some real distance from the heat of the debate over the political make-up of March 14 and likewise the consultations over the government formation,” it said.

Hariri, 39, had reached agreement last week on the division of cabinet seats, splitting the portfolios between his alliance, the rival “March 8” alliance and a group of ministers to be named by President Michel Suleiman.

But Jumblatt has said the three ministers he is expected to be allocated in the 30-seat cabinet will be aligned with neither March 14 or March 8, the coalitions whose rivalry has defined Lebanese politics since the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.

He told Lebanese television station MTV that he would ally himself with Suleiman, who was elected president last year as a consensus candidate.

The change in his position is seen linked to an end to Syria’s isolation by many Western governments and rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria, whose rivalry has been seen at the heart of Lebanon’s turmoil since the Hariri killing.

Jumblatt’s announcement has dealt a major blow to March 14, which won a parliamentary majority in a legislative election two months ago. Without his bloc of 11 MPs, March 14 no longer has an absolute majority in the 128-seat parliament.

Nabih Berri, parliament speaker and one of Syria’s closest allies in Lebanon, told as-Safir newspaper he feared a delay in the government formation. “It is very necessary that contacts be accelerated,” he said.

The Beirut stock exchange fell for a second day in response to the political outlook. The BLOM index fell 2.8 percent, dragged down by real estate firm Solidere. Its shares dipped more than 6 percent.

Jumblatt had been one of the most hawkish figures in the March 14 alliance, which coalesced after the Hariri killing with an agenda focused on ending Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Editing by Samia Nakhoul