x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Hariri rejects serving under Hizbollah-backed PM

Hizbollah and its allies are believed to have chosen the moderate politician and billionaire businessman Najib Mikati as their candidate for prime minister.

BEIRUT // Lebanon's caretaker prime minister said Monday he would not take part in any government headed by a Hizbollah-backed candidate, raising the stakes in a crisis that many fear could descend into violence.

Saad Hariri made the announcement as Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman, began two days of consultations with members over their choice of prime minister.

Lebanon will probably see lengthy negotiations to form a new government after Hizbollah toppled Mr Hariri's Western-backed unity government on January 12 over his refusal to renounce a UN-backed tribunal investigating the assassination in 2005 of his father, the then prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Many fear Hizbollah will react violently if its members are indicted, as is widely expected. Hizbollah, which gets support from Syria and Iran, is Lebanon's most powerful armed force.

Now, both sides are scrambling for enough support to form a government.

Hizbollah and its allies are believed to have chosen the moderate politician and billionaire businessman Najib Mikati as their candidate. Mr Mikati, who served briefly as prime minister in 2005, announced late Sunday that he is seeking the post as a candidate of "moderation and accord" in the talks on Monday and Tuesday.

Asked whether he was the candidate for the Hizbollah-led bloc known as "March 8," Mr Mikati said: "I consider myself to be a candidate of accord and moderation."

A statement issued by Mr Hariri's office, however, said there is no "consensual candidate."

"There is a candidate named Saad Hariri, and another candidate for the March 8 forces, and the choice in this regard is clear and unambiguous," the statement said.

Mr Hariri said his Future movement will not participate in any government headed by a Hizbollah-backed candidate.

One politician, Oqab Sakr, said Mr Mikati's candidacy was "a clear challenge to the will of the parliamentary and popular majority".

The support of at least 65 MPs is required to form a government in Lebanon's 128-seat parliament. Hizbollah and its allies already claim 57 seats. Saad Hariri has 60.

Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect, who heads an 11-member bloc in parliament, said this week he was supporting Hizbollah and Syria.

He is believed to have secured for Hizbollah the votes of at least seven MPs from his bloc, which would bring the militant group only one seat short of majority to govern on its own.

The Hizbollah leader said on Sunday that the group and its allies will seek to form a new unity government with their rivals in Lebanon's Western-backed political bloc if the candidate they are backing is chosen to be prime minister.

Mr Mikati, A Harvard graduate, is seen as a relatively neutral figure who enjoys good relations with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and also with the pro-Western Mr Hariri, who himself is seeking to keep the post.

Mr Mikati's candidacy brings Hizbollah and its allies closer to getting enough support to form a government on their own.

He is a founder of Mikati Communications Group, which includes Investcom, a leading Middle Eastern mobile phone company that has interests in Yemen, Syria and Cyprus.