- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

BEIRUT | Western-backed billionaire Saad Hariri pledged Saturday to work for a national unity government that includes his Hezbollah rivals shortly after he was appointed by the president to become the country’s next prime minister.

An alliance led by the 39-year-old son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri fended off a serious challenge from the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies in parliamentary elections earlier this month.

Mr. Hariri’s nomination — and his conciliatory statements — signal more willingness on the majority’s part to placate Hezbollah and its allies, who had serious misgivings about the previous prime minister, Fuad Siniora.

Many hope it will mark a new start for a country plagued by political turmoil, assassinations and sectarian street clashes in the past four years.

Mr. Hariri immediately pledged to work with rivals to form a national unity government to confront economic and security challenges, but he faces tough negotiations.

In what appears to be a potential obstacle to a speedy formation of the new government, he indicated that he will not give the Hezbollah-led minority veto power in the new Cabinet.

He said he seeks a government “that can achieve, one that is free of obstacles and paralysis.”

Hezbollah and its allies negotiated veto power last year after militants overran Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut and forced the government’s hand. The veto power has virtually paralyzed the government, but ensured a year of relative calm.

President Michel Suleiman appointed Mr. Hariri after two days of consultations with legislators from the 128-member parliament, 86 of whom named the U.S.-backed politician as their choice for prime minister, according to a presidential decree.

Hezbollah did not name Mr. Hariri or anyone else for prime minister during the meetings with Mr. Suleiman. But the head of Hezbollah’s 12-member parliamentary bloc, Mohammed Raad, said Friday that if Mr. Hariri was chosen, the group would be “open and cooperative in order to help boost confidence and achieve a national unity government.”

Under Lebanon’s sectarian division of political power, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Catholic and the parliamentary speaker a Shi’ite Muslim.

Celebratory gunfire erupted in several Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut on Saturday following the announcement of Mr. Hariri’s appointment, and there were reports of several injuries.

Mr. Hariri marked his achievement by praying in downtown Beirut next to the grave of his father, who was killed by a massive truck bomb in 2005. The attack triggered a sea change in Lebanese politics and sparked the younger Mr. Hariri’s entry into politics.

The Hariri family’s business empire, based in Saudi Arabia, includes interests in construction and telecommunications. He has close ties to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s economic powerhouse, and is a Saudi citizen as well.

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