x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Miqati takes first steps in forming new Lebanese cabinet

Police and troops opened all roads and removed barriers across Lebanon after two days of protests while the prime minister-designate, Najib Miqati took the first step in forming a new cabinet by visiting former prime ministers.

BEIRUT // Lebanon's new Hizbollah-backed prime minister began the process of forming a new cabinet today, as calm returned to the country after two days of protests against the group's growing influence.

Police and army troops opened all roads and removed barriers across the nation, while the prime minister-designate, Najib Miqati took the first step in forming a new cabinet by visiting former prime ministers. Hezbollah and its allies ousted the Western-backed government two weeks ago when they quit the Cabinet.

Mr Miqati, a billionaire businessman, has called for a unity government that would bring together Lebanon's diverse society. The outgoing prime minister, Saad Hariri, has insisted he will not join a government led by a man picked by Hizbollah.

But the fact that Hizbollah, a group known as much for its ties to Shiite Iran as for its hostility to Israel, chose Mr Miqati and secured enough backing in parliament to make him prime minister underscores Tehran's growing influence in the region at a time when Washington's is waning.

Wary of Heibollah's position, thousands of Sunnis poured into the streets across Lebanon over the past two days, burning tyres, throwing rocks and accusing the militant group of a coup d'etat.

Some of the most intense protests yesterday took place in the largely Sunni city of Tripoli, Mr Miqati's hometown. Today, traffic had returned to normal and schools and shops had opened. Two armoured personnel carriers and several soldiers stood guard nearby.

Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry advised its citizens today to avoid travelling to Lebanon "until clam and stability return." Saudi Arabia is a strong backer of Mr Hariri, who also holds Saudi citizenship.

Opponents of Hizbollah, which has its own arsenal and is the country's most powerful military force, maintain that having an "Iranian proxy" at the helm of Lebanon's government would be disastrous and lead to international isolation.

Mr Hariri's Future Movement placed banners in Tripoli that accused Mr Miqati of being given a "religious assignment" by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the spiritual leader for many Hizbollah members, including the group's chief, Hassan Nasrallah.

But both Hizbollah and Mr Mikati are calling for a government that includes all of Lebanon's political factions, a sign that the militant group does not want to push its growing power too far and risk isolation abroad and an escalation of sectarian tensions at home.

In Washington, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, warned that formation of a government dominated by Hizbollah would mean changes in US relations with Lebanon.

Lebanon's political crisis has its origins in the assassination of Mr Hariri's father, the then prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive truck bombing on February 14, 2005 along with 22 others.

A UN-backed tribunal is widely expected to accuse Hizbollah of involvement in the crime in a sealed indictment that was issued January 17. Hizbollah has denied any link to the killing and accused the Netherlands-based tribunal of trying to frame its members at the behest of Israel and the United States.

Ministers from Hizbollah and its allies walked out of Saad Hariri's government, forcing it to collapse, after Mr Hariri refused to renounce the court investigating his father's murder.