- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

BEIRUT (AP) | The Lebanese parliament overwhelmingly approved a national unity Cabinet on Tuesday that gives Iranian-backed Hezbollah a more powerful say in how the country is run.

The Cabinet joins Hezbollah and its allies with supporters of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. For nearly two years, Mr. Siniora’s government had rejected the militant group’s demands for veto power in the Cabinet, but compromised after a wave of violence between rival factions in May.

Hezbollah and its allies have 11 out of 30 seats in the Cabinet - enabling them to have veto power over major decisions, keep their weapons and prevent the government from moving too close to the United States.

It took the two sides about 45 days of negotiations to name the new Cabinet and another three weeks to approve its policy platform, which in the end implicitly allowed Hezbollah to remain armed.

Parliament also debated for five days over the weapons issue, which has long been a point of dispute. Many legislators in the Western-backed majority want to disarm the group, but the 128-member assembly approved the new Cabinet 100 to 5 with two abstentions. Only 107 lawmakers attended the session.

Addressing the lawmakers minutes before the confidence vote, Mr. Siniora pledged to solve the country’s political and economic problems and put Lebanon back on the road to prosperity.

“The tasks awaiting this government are many and the time we have is short. We are hoping to gain strength from your precious confidence to accelerate steps together on the road to stability, construction, reforms and prosperity,” he said.

Hezbollah and its allies were granted Cabinet veto power in May as part of an Arab-brokered deal to end months of political stalemate that had escalated into violence and raised fears Lebanon’s sectarian factions could plunge into a new civil war.

Before the agreement, more than 80 people died as Hezbollah militants and their allies battled supporters of the Siniora government in Beirut and other cities.

During Tuesday’s session, legislator and former parliament Speaker Hussein al-Husseini announced he was quitting his parliamentary seat to protest what he called “a tearing of the constitution.”

Mr. al-Husseini, who backs Hezbollah and voted against the Cabinet, criticized the May deal because it prevents Cabinet members from resigning.

The parliament vote came on the eve of a landmark trip by President Michel Suleiman to neighboring Syria, the first such visit by a Lebanese president in about three years.

Relations between the two Arab nations have been lopsided since the 1970s, when Syria sent its army into Lebanon and retained control there for nearly 30 years. But ties unraveled when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a 2005 car bombing that many Lebanese blame on Syria.

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