- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — The candidate backed by Iranian-allied Hezbollah was designated Tuesday to form Lebanon‘s next government, angering Sunnis who protested the rising power of the Shi’ite militant group by burning tires and torching a van belonging to Al Jazeera.

The president appointed Harvard-educated billionaire businessman and former premier Najib Mikati as prime minister-designate after a majority of lawmakers voted for him. Mr. Mikati defeated U.S.-backed Saad Hariri, who was prime minister from 2009 until Hezbollah forced the unity government he led to collapse two weeks ago.

“My hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, in order to build and not to destroy,” Mr. Mikati said after he was chosen, striking a conciliatory tone and calling for another unity government.

The vote caps Hezbollah’s steady rise over the past few decades from a resistance group fighting Israel toLebanon‘s most powerful military and political force. The shift in the balance of power drew warnings from the U.S. that its support for Lebanon could be in jeopardy, demonstrating the risks of international isolation if Hezbollah pushes too far.

Many fear Lebanon‘s political crisis could re-ignite sectarian fighting similar to Shi’ite-Sunni street clashes that killed 81 people in Beirut in 2008. Hezbollah’s rise also looked likely to also raise tensions with Israel, which borders Lebanon to the south. Hezbollah and Israel fought a short but devastating war in 2006.

Despite opposition from the Hariri camp, Mr. Mikati is seen as a relatively neutral choice who enjoys good relations with both Syrian President Bashar Assad and with Mr. Hariri. That puts Mr. Hariri in the awkward position of rejecting a candidate who has been an ally in the past.

Mr. Hariri’s bloc has insisted it will not join a government led by a Hezbollah pick, which could mean months of political deadlock ahead in Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said later Tuesday that neither Mr. Mikati nor the government he will form are going to be controlled by Hezbollah. He urged Mr. Mikati to form a national unity government and called on the Western-backed coalition to be part of it.

“Refusing to participate in this government means that you want to govern alone and that you would do anything for the sake of power,” he said about the Hariri-led coalition.

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

According to Lebanon‘s power-sharing system, the prime minister must be a Sunni, the parliament speaker a Shi’ite and the president must be a Christian Maronite. Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon‘s population of 4 million.

Because Mr. Mikati is a Sunni, protesters accused him of being a traitor to his sect and betraying Mr. Hariri.

Sunnis demonstrated for a second day across the country, in Beirut and along the main highway linking the capital with the southern port city of Sidon.

But the largest gathering Tuesday was in the northern city of Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni area and a hotbed of fundamentalists where thousands of people converged at a major square. Protesters attacked a van of Al Jazeera television, accusing the Arabic satellite station of bias in favor of Hezbollah. The station said no one was injured.

A senior military official said several armed men fired in the air in west Beirut, but the army intervened and dispersed them. Soldiers also clashed with demonstrators in the town of Naameh, south of Beirut, and two civilians were wounded, security officials said.

But besides the large protest in Tripoli, the gatherings were mostly localized and not hugely disruptive.

After it was clear that Mr. Mikati won the support of a majority of lawmakers Tuesday, Mr. Hariri thanked people for their support but called for restraint.

“I understand your emotions … but this rage should not lead us to what is against our morals, faith and beliefs,” he said.

Hezbollah brought down Hariri’s Western-backed government on Jan. 12 when he 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.

Hezbollah, which denies any role in the killing, is widely expected to be indicted.

Mr. Hariri has stayed on as caretaker prime minister.

Hezbollah can now either form its own government, leaving Mr. Hariri and his allies to become the opposition, or it can try to persuade Mr. Hariri to join a national unity government.

Mr. Hariri’s Future bloc declared a day of peaceful protests Tuesday — but called it a “day of rage” and played on the sectarian dimension of the conflict.

Also Tuesday, France’s Foreign Ministry said it is “essential” that the formation of the new government is “carried out within the framework of the constitution … and that it reflects the independent and sovereign choice of the Lebanese.”

“We call on the future government to respect the international commitments taken by Lebanon, notably those on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” the statement said.

The United States, which has poured in $720 million in military aid since 2006, has tried to move Lebanonfirmly into a Western sphere and end the influence of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley warned Monday that continuing U.S. support for Lebanon would be “problematic” if Hezbollah takes a dominant role in the government, though he declined to say what the U.S. would do if Hezbollah’s candidate becomes prime minister.

Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Zeina Karam contributed to this report. Angela Doland contributed from Paris.

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