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Siniora is reappointed as Lebanon's prime minister

May 29, 2008|Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora won a new term Wednesday with the backing of a pro-U.S. coalition, angering the Hezbollah-led opposition that had pressed for a change in leadership.

The decision came amid a two-day outbreak of low-level violence between supporters of the country's two main political camps.

Siniora was named anew to the government's most powerful executive position just three days after former army chief of staff Michel Suleiman was elected president and assigned to name a government after an agreement meant to end a 19-month political crisis.

"Our national unity and coexistence are what we hold most precious and are the secret to the survival of this country," Siniora said in a televised address. "I address myself to my brothers in the nation from all sides and backgrounds with an open mind."

Siniora's victory appeared to catch the opposition off guard. Syrian- and Iranian-backed factions and most analysts said they believed that the majority pro-U.S. coalition known as the March 14 movement would nominate parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, leader of the country's Sunni Muslim community.

Hariri met behind closed doors for more than an hour Monday with Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister of Iran. The meeting suggested that he might have gained the blessing of Tehran, Hezbollah's primary international patron.

The disagreement over Siniora coincided with an uptick in politically motivated violence after two weeks of relative calm. Skirmishes between pro-government young toughs and Hezbollah backers erupted Monday and Tuesday around Beirut. A Lebanese army soldier was killed Tuesday night in clashes south of the capital.

The government Wednesday outlawed motorbikes, often used by political gangs, in the capital after business hours and tightened security in the city.

Although the pro-government camp denied any intention of riling the opposition, Siniora's reappointment was seen as an attempt by the March 14 coalition to show its independence. The powerful opposition bloc had won numerous concessions, including the ability to veto any Cabinet decisions by the government, in the agreement reached this month after Hezbollah fighters seized control of West Beirut for a short time.

Though opposition leaders said they would abide by the decision of the pro-government camp, Hezbollah's television channel, Al Manar, immediately began criticizing the prime minister. It attacked him as having brought the country to "political, economic and social catastrophe," noted that he had received the approval of only 68 of 127 lawmakers and warned of political instability in the next government.

"We consider the nomination of Siniora . . . a continuation of the past," opposition lawmaker Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, told reporters. "It is a sign of dispute, not a sign of consensus. It seems that the majority is starting a war and not a workshop to build a new Lebanon with a new president."

There is little substantive difference between Hariri and Siniora, who once ran the Hariri family's bank. The Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah often depicts Siniora as a U.S. dupe, but Hariri is also close to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and met last year with President Bush at the White House.

However, analysts say Hezbollah viewed Siniora as a symbol of the old government it had sought to topple.

The March 14 alliance probably wants to keep Hariri insulated from any troubles associated with the current government, which expires next year. Hariri is the son and political heir of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose 2005 assassination triggered protests that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the ensuing political deadlock between the pro-U.S. and opposition camps.

"The majority sees the next government as a short-lived transition government that will be changed after the parliamentary elections next year," said Okab Sakr, a Beirut political analyst and columnist for London-based Al Sharq al Awsat, a pan-Arab daily newspaper.

"They thought that any prime minister will not have the time to make grand achievements and they did not want to undermine Hariri by placing him at the head of this government," he said.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi is a Times staff writer and Rafei a special correspondent.

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