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Lebanon appoints moderate ally of Syria as new PM
Updated: 2005-04-16 11:08

Lebanon's president appointed moderate ally of Syria Najib Mikati as prime minister-designate on Friday after the anti-Syrian opposition unexpectedly backed him to lead the country into a general election set for May.

Mikati won the nomination of the country's 128-member parliament as a compromise candidate in a close race with outgoing Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mrad, a staunch ally of Damascus.

Former Lebanese Public Works Minister Najib Mikati is seen during an interview in Beirut, Friday, April 15, 2005, after being nominated as a candidate for prime minister. The anti-Syrian opposition choose Mikati in an effort to break a deadlock in forming a government and open the way for elections that many believe will break Damascus' hold on parliament. [AP]

Lebanon has been without a government since Feb. 28, two weeks after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri plunged the country into its worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Prime Minister Omar Karami stepped down on Wednesday after he failed to agree a cabinet, first with the anti-Syrian opposition and then with pro-Syrian allies.

"I hope I can embody national unity," Mikati told reporters after being appointed by President Emile Lahoud. He said he could begin consultations to form a government on Saturday.

"We are facing an important stage ... the return of democracy," said Mikati, a wealthy 49-year-old businessman and a friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The political crisis has threatened to delay the elections, much to the ire of anti-Syrian opposition lawmakers who believe the polls would give them a majority in a chamber now dominated by allies of Damascus.

But Mikati's appointment with the backing of the opposition could revive hopes of the polls being held on time.

Unlike veteran politician Karami, Mikati does not hail from one of Lebanon's political dynasties and so carries less political baggage, rendering him a compromise choice palatable to both anti-Syrian opposition figures and pro-Syrian loyalists.


The United States has led international calls for the polls to be held on time in May.

"We welcome the naming of a prime minister. We expect to see both an expeditious formation of a Lebanese cabinet as well as parliamentary elections being held by the end of May without delays," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

"Lebanon must be allowed to determine its own future free of intimidation and all foreign interference."

Mikati must quickly form a government, win a confidence vote in parliament, draft an election law and get it passed by the assembly all in under two weeks to have any chance of holding the polls before the end of May.

He said his priorities were holding the polls, cooperating fully with an international inquiry into Hariri's killing and returning confidence to an economy shaken by his death.

The Sunni Muslim former transport minister did not say whether he expected the elections to take place on time.

Syrian forces first entered Lebanon in 1976, early in the civil war, and became the dominant force in the country's politics in the ensuing 15 years of peace.

Those forces are now streaming out of Lebanon in line with a promise to end the 29-year-old Syrian military and intelligence presence by April 30, leaving Syria's allies in Beirut squabbling over what to do next.

Lebanon's opposition accuse pro-Syrian officials of trying to delay the vote, in which they hope to capitalize on popular sympathy after Hariri's killing.

The opposition renewed warnings on Friday against delaying the polls, and has said it could call for street protests if the government situation was not resolved next week.

Anti-Syrian protests in central Beirut over the past two months have forced the government to resign and pressured Syria to quit Lebanon.

Political sources have said the elections could be pushed back by weeks or months by a delay in forming a government. Parliament's four-year term ends on May 31. The constitution requires polls be called at least a month before voting day.

If elections are not held in May, parliament can extend its term by several months to avoid a political vacuum.

Syrian military and intelligence forces left a number of positions in the eastern Bekaa Valley, witnesses said. The Lebanese army brought extra troops to the village of Anjar ready to take over Syrian intelligence headquarters there.

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