- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Leaders of parliament’s pro-Western majority decided late today to back Fuad Saniora to remain as Lebanon’s prime minister in the new unity Cabinet being formed with the Hezbollah-led opposition, a government official said.

The move was seen as a way for the beleaguered majority to display some independence after being forced into conceding the Syrian-supported Hezbollah and its allies veto power over government decisions and was not expected to undermine the deal.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, said earlier this week that he would respect the majority’s choice for prime minister.

The government official said the decision to support Saniora for another stint as prime minister came during a meeting of top party leaders and other anti-Syria politicians at the home of majority leader Saad Hariri. The official agreed to reveal the majority’s decision only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it with the media,

Saniora has been prime minister since July 2005, a few months after former premier Rafik Hariri was killed by a truck bomb. Outcry over the assassination forced Syria to withdraw its troops after dominating Lebanon for nearly three decades, but Lebanese politics have become mired in fighting between Syria’s supporters and its foes.

New President Michel Suleiman is scheduled to poll lawmakers on their choice for prime minister tomorrow. With the support of the majority, Saniora would be sure of winning the post, which is allocated to a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

Suleiman, the army chief, was elected by parliament as a consensus president Sunday. His election was the first step in an Arab League-brokered unity deal designed to end the prolonged political stalemate that exploded this month into the worst bloodshed since Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

Under terms of the agreement, a 30-member national unity Cabinet will be formed in which Hezbollah and its allies will have veto power. The deal allocates 16 seats for the parliament majority, 11 for the opposition and three to be named by the president.

The accord came after several days of fighting in Muslim west Beirut and other spots that saw the Shiite militiamen of Hezbollah and their allies rout Sunni groups loyal to Saniora’s government.

Those battles and other clashes since May 7 have killed 81 people and wounded more than 200, including a Lebanese soldier killed today when he was caught in crossfire in a village south of the capital.

The Interior Ministry today banned the use of motorbikes, car parades, political party flags and provocative slogans in Beirut, hoping to calm sectarian tensions. A gunbattle in the city last night that wounded nine people erupted as Hezbollah supporters rode motorbikes in a Sunni area, waving flags and saluting Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

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