- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

BEIRUT — Newly appointed Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati was close to naming a Cabinet last night after a whirlwind weekend of negotiations to end Lebanon’s lengthy impasse, which threatened to delay critical elections, according to opposition sources.

President Emile Lahoud named Mr. Mikati after Omar Karami resigned for the second time in six weeks after failing to form a government owing to the opposition’s refusal to negotiate. Mr. Karami and Mr. Lahoud came under massive criticism and political opposition after a car bomb killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14.

The assassination sparked massive protests against the government and Syria, which has politically and militarily occupied its tiny neighbor for almost 30 years.

Bassel Fleihan, 41, a lawmaker and former economics minister close to Mr. Hariri, died yesterday of wounds suffered in the blast at a Paris hospital, bringing the death toll from the incident to at least 21.

Mr. Mikati was working quickly to form a Cabinet in order to pass an election law to guide the country in balloting scheduled for the end of May. After Mr. Karami failed to form a new government — his had initially resigned in the wake of the protests that filled the streets of Beirut for weeks — the anti-Syrian opposition criticized the delay as stalling the elections by the pro-Syrian loyalists led by Mr. Lahoud.

But after being named to the top post, Mr. Mikati immediately reached out to loyalists and opposition alike to form a government and said he would hold elections within two months. Opposition leaders have said only a small delay is acceptable and immediately threw their support behind him.

?He agreed to our key demands and despite his close ties to Syria, we accept him and think he can get the job done for the elections. A few weeks delay will not matter as long as they are free and fair,? one key opposition figure said, asking to remain anonymous so as to not interfere in the talks.

Mr. Mikati met with Mr. Karami on Saturday in the northern city of Tripoli after praying at his father’s grave with family members. He told The Washington Times that he felt he could form a Cabinet quickly enough to hold elections on time. The Cabinet and election law have to be approved by parliament.

?I think we can get it done,? he said.

A multimillionaire telecommunications businessman, Mr. Mikati is known to be a close friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad. This relationship made him acceptable to the pro-Syria loyalists. He became palatable to the opposition — which would likely win in free elections — after promising to hold the elections more or less on time and because he has no desire to continue in the post. He has vowed not to run for election.

A key opposition figure and critic of Syria — former Lebanese army commander and president Gen. Michel Aoun — told local press over the weekend that he would support the Mikati government. Mr. Aoun has lived in exile in France since being forced from office in 1990 by the Syrians, ending the bloody civil war that spanned 15 years. He has said he will return from exile before the elections.

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