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Hezbollah moves toward Lebanon government control

- Associated Press - Monday, January 24, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — Hezbollah secured the support from a majority of parliament Monday to nominate its candidate for prime minister, putting the Iranian-backed militant group in position to control Lebanon's new government.

Billionaire businessman Najib Mikati, a moderate politician and former premier, was set to clinch the nomination after Shiite Hezbollah and its allies lined up the needed backing of at least 65 of the 128 parliament members as voting on the candidate began Monday.

Hezbollah brought down the unity government with the Western-backed coalition earlier this month after Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri refused the group's demand to cease cooperation with a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The tribunal is widely expected to indict Hezbollah members in the assassination, something that has raised fears of renewed violence in this tiny, volatile Mideast country on Israel's northern border.

Hezbollah's opponents say a government led by the militant group would be disastrous for Lebanon and lead to international isolation. The United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, has tried to move Lebanon firmly into a Western sphere.

A Hezbollah-led government would also raise tensions with Israel, which fought a 34-day war against Hezbollah in 2006 that left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead.

Several hundred Hariri supporters in the northern city of Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni area and a hotbed of fundamentalists, staged protests Monday chanting slogans against Mr. Mikati, a lawmaker from Tripoli.

The protesters waved pictures of Hariri and shouted: "Mikati you are not one of us, leave Tripoli and go away." Some banners read: "The blood of Sunnis is boiling."

The protesters briefly closed a main road in the town of Minyeh in Tripoli.

Mr. Mikati appealed for calm and, in a statement, called on Hariri supporters not to upset stability.

Hezbollah and its allies had the support of at least 57 seats and gained seven more from the bloc of Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect. With Mr. Mikati's vote, Hezbollah reached 65. The voting in parliament on a new candidate for prime minister was to continue on Tuesday.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said Sunday if their candidate gets the post of prime minister, the group will try to form another national unity government with Mr. Hariri's Western-backed bloc.

But Mr. Hariri said Monday he will not join a government headed by a Hezbollah-backed candidate.

On Sunday, Hezbollah's bloc chose Mr. Mikati, who served briefly as premier in 2005. He presented himself as a candidate reaching out to all sides.

"I don't distinguish between anyone. I extend my hand to everyone without exception. ... I say to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, let us all work together for the sake of Lebanon," he told reporters.

But Mr. Mikati dodged a question if he would end Lebanon's cooperation with the international court — a key Hezbollah demand — saying only that "any dispute can be solved only through dialogue."

A statement issued by Mr. Hariri's office said there is no "consensual candidate" and made clear Mr. Hariri remained the Western-backed camp's choice for prime minister.

Lawmaker Oqab Sakr said Mr. Mikati's candidacy was "a clear challenge to the will of the parliamentary and popular majority."

A Harvard graduate, Mr. Mikati is seen as a relatively neutral figure who enjoys good relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad and with the pro-Western Mr. Hariri, who himself is seeking to keep the post.

Mr. Mikati, whose wealth is estimated at $2.5 billion is on the Forbes list of world billionaires. In the 1980s, during Lebanon's civil war, he founded telecom company Investcom with his elder brother, Taha. They sold the company to South Africa's MTN Group for $5.5 billion in 2006.

The Mikati brothers now run M1 Group, a multibillion dollar holding company with interests in telecom, oil and gas and real estate among other things.

Last year, M1 bought a 13.95 percent stake in Bank Audi, Lebanon largest bank, for $450 million.

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