- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2008

BEIRUT | Hezbollah and its allies solidified their hold on Lebanon’s government Friday with the formation of a national unity Cabinet that gives them veto power over government decisions.

Still, the Western-backed parliamentary majority managed to deny the Hezbollah-led opposition any of the most important Cabinet positions, except for the one it had already held: foreign affairs.

The Cabinet’s formation ends six weeks of wrangling over how to distribute the posts and is another step toward healing the country’s deep political divide.

The unity government is the outcome of a deal brokered by the Arab League in May, under which the opposition agreed to rejoin the government after its rivals gave in to demands to have a final say over all government decisions.

That deal came after Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants and allied gunmen fanned out across Lebanon’s capital in May, clashing with government supporters. The violence killed at least 81 people and brought the country to the brink of another civil war.

“We have decided to manage our disputes through democratic institutions and dialogue, and not through force and intimidation,” Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told reporters at the presidential palace in suburban Beirut after the names of the new Cabinet ministers were announced.

But Lebanon’s problems, he added, “will not cease to exist overnight.”

In the new Cabinet, the parliamentary majority holds 16 seats and the opposition gets 11. Three others were distributed by the president.

Both the parliamentary majority and the opposition made concessions that cleared the way for the Cabinet’s formation. The opposition dropped demands to take two of the four key ministerial portfolios: defense, interior, finance and foreign affairs.

In Washington, the State Department praised the creation of the new government as a critical step in restoring democracy to Lebanon but stressed that, as in the past, it would not have contact with Cabinet members who belong to Hezbollah.

“We welcome the formation of this new Cabinet,” spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

Hezbollah’s ascendancy is a setback for the U.S., which had strongly backed the outgoing Lebanese government for three years and is concerned that Iran’s influence is spreading in the Middle East.

Iran also welcomed the new government. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said he hoped it would lead to a “strengthening of national unity among the Lebanese,” Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.

The 30-member Cabinet is divided equally between Christians and Muslims in accordance with Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

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