Lebanon premier unveils new Cabinet with Hezbollah

AP News
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Posted: Nov 09, 2009 4:14 PM

Lebanon's prime minister formed a Cabinet Monday that includes the militant group Hezbollah and its allies, ending a political deadlock that left the deeply divided nation without a government for months and threatened to ignite violence.

Saad Hariri unveiled the 30-member Cabinet after more than four months of tough bargaining with his rivals in the Hezbollah-led political coalition over who would get which portfolios.

Hariri's Western-backed bloc narrowly defeated the Hezbollah-led group in June's parliamentary election, enabling it to retain a slim majority in the 128-member legislature. But Hariri's need to include his powerful rivals in a national unity government set the stage for the months of wrangling.

In the end, some commentators said the governing formula gives Hezbollah and its allies virtual veto power over government decisions.

Hariri, whose father, a former prime minister himself, was assassinated in a 2005 truck bombing in Beirut, pledged to work with "open doors" and cooperate with all factions in Lebanon's combustible mix of ethnic and religious parties.

"We have turned a page that we don't want to return to and opened a new page that we hope will be one of unity and work for Lebanon," Hariri said after submitting his list of ministers to the president.

In the Cabinet breakdown, Hariri and his partners get 15 seats. Ten go to Hezbollah and its allies. That denies either side outright control.

The other five seats were chosen by Lebanon's president, who is considered a neutral figure, giving him the tipping vote. One of those seats went to an ostensibly neutral Shiite, but some believe he could be tapped by the Hezbollah-led grouping to block any Cabinet decision.

One of Hezbollah's two representatives in the Cabinet, Mohammed Fneish, sidestepped a question about whether that meant the group had veto control.

"This formula achieves the principle of real partnership in political decision-making on key decisions," he told The Associated Press.

One of the most contentious points was a demand by a key Hezbollah ally, Christian leader Michel Aoun, to retain for his bloc the Telecommunications Ministry, an important position to guard because of Hezbollah's private communications network and other security issues.

A government threat in 2008 to shut it down triggered sectarian clashes in which Shiite Muslim Hezbollah fighters and their allies overran Sunni Muslim neighborhoods, defeating armed supporters of the pro-Western government in street battles.

Under the new Cabinet, Aoun, who heads the second-largest bloc in parliament with 27 legislators, will keep that sensitive portfolio after Hariri dropped his objections.

Besides the fractious mix within Lebanon, the tough negotiating over the government's formation also reflected the influence of outside powers backing rival sides, a legacy of years of civil war when Lebanon also became a proxy battleground for other countries.

Two of those powers, Syria and Saudi Arabia, reconciled last month during a visit to Damascus by Saudi King Abdullah, helping clear the way for a deal in Lebanon.

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Associated Press Writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.