x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hizbollah-backed candidate is new PM of Lebanon

Victory for Shiite group's candidate Najib Miqati sets off 'day of rage' among Saad Hariri's Sunni supporters, who set fire to Al Jazeera TV van as part of protests.

Supporters of Saad Hariri protest around a burning satellite truck used by Al Jazeera tv channel during what they called a 'day of anger' in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, against the nomination of the Hizbollah-backed Najib Miqati to form the next government.
Supporters of Saad Hariri protest around a burning satellite truck used by Al Jazeera tv channel during what they called a 'day of anger' in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, against the nomination of the Hizbollah-backed Najib Miqati to form the next government.

BEIRUT // The telecoms tycoon Najib Miqati, who is backed by Hizbollah and its allies, was appointed today as prime minister-designate by Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman, a presidential statement said.

Sources said Mr Miqati, a Sunni from Tripoli, won the nomination of 68 members of parliament of the country's 128-member assembly.

Speaking after the appointment, Mr Miqati said he would start talks to form the government on Thursday and urged all Lebanese factions to overcome their differences.

However, the choice of Mr Miqati set off a "day of rage" by Sunnis who burned tyres and a van belonging to the television station Al Jazeera to protest against the Shiite militant group's rising power.

Mr Miqati won a majority of parliament support in two days of voting, defeating the Western-backed prime minister Saad Hariri. The president will now ask Mr Miqati to try to form a new government that could be controlled by Hizbollah and its allies and give the group an unprecedented level of political power in Lebanon.

The vote caps Hizbollah's steady rise over the past few decades from a resistance group fighting Israel to Lebanon's most powerful military and political force. The events of the past few days drew warnings from the US that its support for Lebanon could be in jeopardy, demonstrating the risks of international isolation if Hizbollah pushes its power too far.

Hizbollah's Sunni rivals, who support Mr Hariri, demonstrated for a second day across the country, including in the capital Beirut and on the main highway linking the capital with the southern port city of Sidon. A senior military official said several armed men fired in the air in west Beirut, but the army intervened and dispersed them.

The largest gathering today 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. Al Jazeera said none of its crew was injured when protesters attacked the station's van.

Soldiers also clashed with demonstrators in the town of Naameh, south of Beirut, and two civilians were wounded, security officials said.

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.

Many fear Lebanon's political crisis could re-ignite sectarian fighting similar to Shiite-Sunni street clashes that killed 81 people in Beirut in 2008. But besides the protest in Tripoli, the gatherings today were mostly localised and not hugely disruptive.

Mr Miqati urged calm today and said he wanted to represent all of Lebanon. "This is a democratic process," Mr Miqati told reporters. "I want to rescue my country."

Hizbollah brought down Saad Hariri's Western-backed government on January 12 when he refused the group's demand to cease cooperation with a UN-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of his father, the then prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005.

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

The group 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. Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a speech on Sunday night, that he favoured a unity government.

Mr Hariri said on Monday that he will not join a government headed by a Hizbollah-backed candidate. Mr Hariri's Future bloc declared a day of peaceful protests today but called it a "day of rage" and played on the sectarian dimension of the conflict.

In the United States, which has poured in $720 million in military aid since 2006, a State Department spokesman warned on Monday that continuing US support for Lebanon would be "problematic" if Hizbollah takes a dominant role in the government, though he declined to say what the US would do if, as has turned out. Hizbollah's candidate becomes prime minister.