Hezbollah, allies dominate new Lebanon govt

The defence ministry is now in the hands of Hezbollah`s Christian allies.

Beirut: Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati insisted in a news agency interview there would be no radical shift in policy, as he announced a new government in which Hezbollah and its allies hold the majority.

The billionaire Sunni businessman revealed his line-up following arduous negotiations over key portfolios including justice and telecommunications, now controlled by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah alliance.

"This government is a government for all Lebanese, no matter what party they support, be it the majority or the opposition," 56-year-old Mikati said of his 30-member cabinet.

It is the first time a coalition led by Hezbollah, which fought a deadly summer war with Israel in 2006, has dominated a government in Lebanon.

The party, arguably the most powerful militant group in the region, first entered government in 2005 and has steadily imposed itself as a key player in domestic politics.

Washington, which lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, said it would adopt a wait-and-see approach to Mikati`s government.

"We`ll judge it by its actions," US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

"What`s important in our mind is that the new Lebanese government abides by the Lebanese constitution, that it renounces violence, including efforts to exact retribution against former government officials, and lives up to all its international obligations."

Lebanon`s pro-Western opposition bloc, led by former premier Saad Hariri, has boycotted the new cabinet, slamming it as a "Hezbollah government."

But Mikati moved to calm fears about the new line-up.

"The fact that Hezbollah and its allies have 18 seats in the 30-member cabinet does not mean that the country will join the radical camp in terms of its relations with the international community," he told a news agency.

He stressed that more than one-third -- 12 -- of the ministers had been appointed by himself, President Michel Sleiman and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, thus ensuring Hezbollah and its allies could not make decisions unilaterally.

The government must now be approved by at least half of Lebanon`s 128-seat parliament, where the Hezbollah-led alliance has a small majority.

In a sign of simmering discord between Mikati and the Hezbollah alliance, Druze MP Talal Arslan immediately resigned as state minister in the new cabinet, accusing Mikati of being a "liar" and seeking to deprive the minority Druze of key posts.

One of the main challenges facing the new cabinet will be how to deal with a UN-backed investigation into the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

Hezbollah forced the collapse of the previous government headed by Hariri`s son after he refused to disavow the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The Netherlands-based court is widely expected to indict Hezbollah operatives over the killing, a move the militant group has repeatedly warned against.

Mikati has declined to say whether his government will cease all cooperation with the court.

"We will assess the implications of the tribunal on Lebanon and on Lebanon`s stability and act accordingly," he said.

"I can say that I will do my best to deal with the issue so that Lebanon continues to respect international resolutions -- yet I have responsibilities when it comes to Lebanon`s stability," he added without elaborating.

Mikati urged the Lebanese people to judge his government by its actions and not its individual members or the parties they represent.

"This government is fully aware that the future is not all rosy and that it will face obstacles, challenges and traps," he told reporters.

A major point of contention in the negotiations over the new line-up was the interior ministry. It will be headed by retired army general Marwan Charbel, considered close to the president.

The new foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, is a former ambassador to Iran which along with Syria is a major backer of Hezbollah.

The defence ministry is now in the hands of Hezbollah`s Christian allies.

The first head of state to congratulate Lebanon on the new government was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country holds major sway in Lebanese politics.

Damascus was forced to pull its troops out of its smaller neighbour after Hariri`s assassination, ending 29 years of military and political domination.

In the United States, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, called for the US to cut off aid to the new government because of the presence of Hezbollah.

Bureau Report

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