x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lebanon forms unity government

The US and the EU welcome the new government, although America has said it will not deal with Hizbollah cabinet members.

From left to right clockwise: the Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, foreign minister Fawzi Salukh, telecommunications minister Gibran Bassil, labour minister Mohammed Fneish, interior minister Ziad Baroud, finance minister Mohammed Shatah), justice minister Ibrahim Najjar and defence minister Elias Murr.
From left to right clockwise: the Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, foreign minister Fawzi Salukh, telecommunications minister Gibran Bassil, labour minister Mohammed Fneish, interior minister Ziad Baroud, finance minister Mohammed Shatah), justice minister Ibrahim Najjar and defence minister Elias Murr.

BEIRUT // The US and the European Union have welcomed Lebanon's new government, although America has said it would still not deal with Hizbollah cabinet members. Lebanon ended weeks of wrangling yesterday and formed a unity government in which Hizbollah and its allies hold effective veto power, as agreed under a deal that ended a paralysing political conflict in the country. The decisive say granted to the former opposition led by Hizbollah, an ally of Damascus, shows that Syria has succeeded in wrenching back some political leverage in Lebanon, where it was the main power broker until its troops left in 2005.

The birth of the government, the first under the newly elected president Michel Suleiman, should close a long political crisis that had threatened to plunge Lebanon into a new civil war. But it also marks the start of a challenging new era in which leaders must contain rising sectarian tensions, prepare for a parliamentary election next year and start talks on the fate of Iranian- and Hizbollah's military wing.

"Finally!" a 21-year-old Beirut man, who gave his name only as Ahmed, said of the new cabinet. "Hopefully it will be a real national unity government and they won't waste time fighting at the table and will sort out the problems of the Lebanese." The United States welcomed the formation of a cabinet but said it would not deal with cabinet members from Hizbollah. "This cabinet does include members of Hizbollah, as did the last one. We will not deal with those members of the cabinet. But we look forward to working with the prime minister, as well as his new foreign minister," the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.

The European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana also hailed the formation of the new government, which he said marked a "key achievement". "Important decisions need to be taken in the coming weeks and there is a lot of work to be done," Mr Solana said in a statement, reiterating the EU's support to the Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora. Mr Suleiman is due in Paris for tomorrow's launch of the French president Nicolas Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union project, his first foreign trip as president. He is expected to hold talks there with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al Assad.

Mr Assad's presence at the summit, which the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert will also attend, marks French recognition of Syria's role in facilitating a compromise in Lebanon. Damascus had given its blessing to the Doha deal, which effectively translated into political gains the military victory Hizbollah and its allies had won against their Western-backed foes in street fighting in Beirut and elsewhere earlier in May.

A presidential decree announced the cabinet after Mr Suleiman met Mr Siniora and the parliament speaker Nabih Berri. "This government has two main tasks: regaining confidence in the Lebanese political system... and securing the holding of a transparent parliamentary election," Mr Siniora told reporters. The new team has one Hizbollah minister in addition to 10 ministers from its Shiite, Druze and Christian allies.

The opposition was guaranteed 11 of the cabinet's 30 seats under a May deal to defuse a conflict that had sparked some of the worst fighting since the 1975-90 civil war. All major decisions require a two-thirds majority or 20 cabinet votes. The Qatari-brokered May 21 agreement opened the way for Suleiman's election four days later, but factional squabbling over portfolios had held up the formation of a government.

The majority coalition chose 16 ministers. Mr Suleiman picked the remaining three, including the interior minister Ziad Baroud. Mr Siniora's close adviser Mohammad Chatah takes the finance portfolio. The Hizbollah member Mohammad Fneish becomes labour minister and Fawzi Salloukh, of the Amal group, has been named as foreign minister. The cabinet's main task will be to ease sectarian and political tensions to avert further violence, adopt an election law agreed in the Qatar talks and supervise next year's poll.

With the government in place, Mr Suleiman is expected to call rival leaders for round-table talks on divisive issues, with the fate of Hizbollah's weapons foremost among them. Hizbollah maintains a formidable guerrilla army that fought off Israeli forces in a 34-day war in 2006. Its domestic detractors say Hizbollah has had no reason to keep its weapons since Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000. Hizbollah and its allies argue that it needs its arsenal to deter and defend Lebanon against possible Israeli attack.

*Reuters