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In Lebanon, Sunnis stage angry protests against Hezbollah-backed prime minister

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The candidate backed by Iranian-allied Hezbollah was designated Tuesday to form Lebanon's next government, angering Sunnis who protested the rising power of the Shiite militant group by burning tires and torching a van belonging to Al-Jazeera.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 9:04 PM

TRIPOLI, LEBANON - Sunni Arabs took to the streets of Lebanon on Tuesday to protest the country's new prime minister and the growing influence of Hezbollah, the Shiite armed movement.

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The crowds of Sunnis in Beirut and this northern city numbered just a few thousand. But the protesters' bitter rhetoric suggested that the ongoing political crisis here is hardening sectarian divisions and could lead to large-scale civil unrest.

The constitution in this sharply divided country requires that the prime minister be a Sunni. But Najib Mikati, the Sunni billionaire who took over that position Tuesday, did so with the support of Hezbollah, prompting accusations that he had betrayed his own people.

His appointment indicated an important shift in power in Lebanon, where the influence of the United States and its Sunni Arab allies in the region is waning, while that of Syria and Iran - which support Hezbollah - is growing.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States hopes that Lebanon's government will represent its people, and not outside forces.

And State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley added, "The make-up of Lebanon's government is a Lebanese decision, but this decision should not be reached through coercion, intimidation, and threats of violence. Unfortunately, Hezbollah, backed by Syria, engaged in all three in pursuit of its political goals."

The protests in Beirut and Tripoli quickly turned violent as people burned tires in the streets and threw rocks at vehicles and passersby, cursing what they considered the Shiite consolidation of power in Lebanon. They attacked journalists and torched a news van, prompting the Lebanese Army in some parts of Beirut to use tear gas to contain the crowds.

"We are all named Sunni today," one demonstrator, his face covered in a scarf, said when asked to identify himself. Tires and garbage burned behind him, with orange flames shooting in the sky.

The government of Saad Hariri collapsed two weeks ago when Hezbollah and its allies pulled out of his cabinet to protest the then-prime minister's refusal to renounce a controversial U.N. tribunal investigating the assassination of his father and 22 others in 2005. Sealed indictments issued last week are believed to accuse some members of Hezbollah. The group, the most powerful military force in the country, denies the allegations and calls the tribunal an American and Israeli tool to attack it.

This week, Hezbollah garnered enough support in parliament to oust Hariri from power, and Mikati -former premier who is known as a neutral figure - won the backing of a parliamentary majority and became prime minister.

On Tuesday, Mikati promised to work for a national unity government that represented all people in this mixed nation of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druze. He rejected attempts to cast him as Hezbollah's prime minister and pledged to reach out to Hariri.

"There should be no party that doesn't want to take part in this kind of government," he said. "I will always stay moderate - in the middle. I call for calm."


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