x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Salam nominated to become new Lebanon PM

The president, Michel Suleiman, is holding two days of talks to nominate a successor to Najib Mikati, who resigned last month after two fraught years in office during which he sought to contain sectarian tensions, street violence and economic fallout from the civil war in Syria.

BEIRUT // The Shiite militant group Hizbollah and its allies were expected to back the Sunni politician Tammam Salam yesterday to be Lebanon's new prime minister, politicians said, handing him an overwhelming parliamentary endorsement to form a government.

The president, Michel Suleiman, is holding two days of talks to nominate a successor to Najib Mikati, who resigned last month after two fraught years in office during which he sought to contain sectarian tensions, street violence and economic fallout from the civil war raging in neighbouring Syria.

Mr Salam's main task, if Mr Suleiman asks him to form a government, will be to steer the fractious country towards a parliamentary election which is due in June but is now widely expected to face delay.

Mr Mikati resigned following a cabinet dispute with Hizbollah and its allies - who brought him to power in early 2011 - over extending the term of a top security official and preparations for the parliamentary vote.

A former minister from a prominent political dynasty, Mr Salam won the backing on Thursday of the Saudi and western-backed March 14 political coalition after talks in Saudi Arabia. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, whose seven parliamentary seats hold the balance of power, also backed him.

A Sunni Muslim, as all Lebanese prime ministers must be under the country's confessional distribution of power, Mr Salam is seen as being close to March 14, but independent enough to be acceptable to Hizbollah's March 8 bloc.

The parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, whose Shiite Amal movement is part of the March 8 coalition, threw his support behind Mr Salam yesterday and called on all political sides to work together.

"We in March 8 will name Tammam Salam to form a new government - a government of national unity," a political source in the bloc said.

Despite the expected overwhelming support - even the outgoing prime minister, Mr Mikati, said he would back Mr Salam - the March 8 source warned that it "might still be months" before the former culture minister could form a cabinet acceptable to all sides.

March 14 groups together mainly Sunni and Christian parties that pushed, with US and European support, for Syria to end nearly three decades of military presence in Lebanon in 2005.

It has strongly supported the revolt against Bashar Al Assad, the president in neighbouring Syria, where the United Nations said 70,000 people had been killed and 400,000 refugees had poured into Lebanon, a country of four million.

March 8 has backed Mr Al Assad's campaign to crush the uprising, which began with mainly peaceful protests but has descended into a civil war that has reduced parts of Syria's major cities to rubble and caused damage worth tens of billions of dirhams.

Lebanon itself has been shaken by the violence, which has spilled across the border into the Bekaa Valley and inflamed tensions in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunni Muslims - who actively support the Syrian rebels - and members of Mr Al Assad's minority Alawite community.

The influx of mainly Sunni refugees is politically sensitive in Lebanon, whose rival sects fought a civil war from 1975 to 1990.

Before his resignation, Mr Mikati called for international aid to help Lebanon deal with the impact of the ever-growing number of refugees. Mr Suleiman called this week for refugee camps to be set up inside Syria itself, under United Nations auspices, to ease the burden on Syria's neighbours.

Born in 1945, Mr Salam is the son of Saeb Salam, a former prime minister. His grandfather served under the Ottoman Empire and the French colonial mandate. He was himself a cabinet minister in 2008 and 2009.

* Reuters