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Hezbollah-backed candidate in line to become Lebanon's new prime minister

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 12:17 AM

BEIRUT - The Shiite armed movement Hezbollah cobbled together enough support Monday to appoint Lebanon's next prime minister, effectively ending nearly six years of rule by Western-backed leaders and prompting the United States to warn it could cut off aid to this key Arab nation.

The apparent strength of Hezbollah marked an important political achievement for the group. It also signaled what appeared to be a significant shift for the country, away from alliances with the United States and Saudi Arabia, and toward Iran and Syria, which support Hezbollah.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States "would have great concerns about a government within which Hezbollah plays a leading role."

The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. A prominent government role for the group could compel the U.S. government to list Lebanon as a terrorist state. That designation would carry with it the automatic suspension of aid, a possibility that Crowley acknowledged. The United States has sent about $1.2 billion in economic and military assistance to Lebanon in the past five years, and the Obama administration has requested $246 million more this year.

Hezbollah and its allies agreed Monday to support Najib Mikati, a Sunni self-made billionaire, for the prime minister's post, a decision that could be confirmed by the full parliament as early as Tuesday.

But even as Hezbollah worked to install its candidate as prime minister, the group tried to play down its role in the new government. Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader, said in a speech Sunday that Hezbollah hoped to form a national unity government with broad participation. "We are not seeking authority," he said.

Hezbollah has said repeatedly that it does not want to rule Lebanon. Instead, the group forced a change in government to end Lebanon's cooperation with a United Nations tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, a former prime minister. Sealed indictments were issued by the tribunal last week, and are widely thought to name several members of Hezbollah.

But the reaction from the group's Sunni opponents left no doubt that, for them, such a government would represent a dangerously strengthened hand for Hezbollah, already the most powerful military force in the country, and for its backers in Iran.

Saad al-Hariri, who served as prime minister since November 2009, said Monday he would not participate in a government led by a Hezbollah-backed candidate. Hariri's backers called for a "day of anger" on Tuesday, and complained about what they said was Iranian meddling in Lebanon.

They gave a taste of that anger Monday, protesting in the streets of the mostly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, cursing Mikati and the head of Hezbollah, burning tires and closing down a vegetable market, local television reported. In swaths of the north and Beirut, protesters stopped cars, burned tires and blocked roads as the Lebanese army rushed to control them.

The possibility of a Hezbollah-dominated government also prompted concern in Israel, which fought a war with Hezbollah in 2006.

Silvan Shalom, an Israeli vice prime minister, called the possibility of a government dominated by Hezbollah "a very, very dangerous development," telling a weekend radio interview it would be like having "an Iranian government on Israel's northern border."

The government crisis in Lebanon was sparked two weeks ago, when Hezbollah and its allies withdrew their support for Hariri after he failed to meet their demands that he renounce the tribunal investigating the killing of his father and 22 others.

Hezbollah strongly denies involvement in the 2005 killings and has questioned the credibility of the U.N. tribunal, which it calls a tool of the Americans and the Israelis. Hezbollah wants to stop Lebanon's cooperation with the inquiry without appearing to use force or alienating the Sunni Arab world.

Under the Lebanese constitution, the prime minister must be a Sunni. Officials close to Hezbollah and analysts said Mikati, a lawmaker from Tripoli, was chosen because he is seen as a neutral leader and might be able to form a national unity government.

But as Hezbollah's pick for prime minister, he is also expected to sever ties with the tribunal, pull the Lebanese judges from the court and cut off Lebanese funding, as the group has demanded.

The American University of Beirut graduate, who also studied at Harvard, served as Lebanon's prime minister briefly in 2005. He is known as a moderate with good relationships with Syria, Turkey, Arab neighbors and the West.

Mikati announced his candidacy on Sunday after a visit to Syria, where officials say he received the blessing of President Bashar al-Assad, a major backer of Hezbollah.

He called on all factions within Lebanon to participate in a government "of one hand." Mikati's nomination will probably bring the support of some Sunni parliamentarians, along with that of Druze patriarch Walid Jumblatt and the seats he controls. Taken together with the votes of Hezbollah and its other allies, Mikati would have the majority needed to become prime minister.

Hezbollah supporters dismissed U.S. threats to cut off funding, and stressed that the change of power would be peaceful and within the political system.

"Mikati is not coming to power by force, a coup or by civil unrest. Mikati is coming to power by the parliamentary system of Lebanon," said Hassan Khalil, publisher of the left-leaning Lebanese daily Al Akhbar. "Funding from the United States is limited and will not disturb the balance of power."

But Hariri's supporters said popular dissatisfaction with such a new government could prompt Mikati to withdraw his candidacy, or lead some lawmakers to withdraw their support.

"Mikati, if he is trying to form a national unity government, will not be able to form a government," said Mustapha Alloush, a member of the political bureau of Hariri's Future movement. "The crisis is now open for all possibilities."

Staff writer Janine Zacharia contributed to this report from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Moe Ali Nayel contributed from Beirut.

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