Tough tasks ahead for Lebanon’s new government

BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanon’s new government, which includes a member of the Hizbollah movement, faces the tough tasks of uniting disparate factions, patching up ties with Syria and revitalising the economy.
Prime minister-designate Fuad Siniora unveiled Tuesday a 24-member Cabinet, in which the energy portfolio was given to Mohammed Fneish, a member of Hizbollah, the Shiite group regarded as “terrorist” by the United States.

Washington was quick to announce it would boycott Fneish.

The line-up won the approval of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, after three previous efforts were rejected, and is the first elected government since Syria withdrew from Lebanon in April, ending three decades of domination.

UN Security Council Resolution 1559, sponsored by Paris and Washington and adopted in September, called for Syria’s withdrawal as well as the disarmament of Hizbollah.

Strained relations with neighbouring Syria, for years the power broker in Lebanon, as well as economic and institutional reforms are also among the challenges facing Siniora’s administration.

“The government must be able to implement Resolution 1559 and not just say that (disarming Hizbollah) is an internal affair that will be solved through dialogue,” political analyst Nawaf Salam told AFP.

“The essence of a dialogue must respect the terms of the resolution,” said the American University of Beirut professor.

“Lebanese-Syrian relations need to be urgently redefined following the forced Syrian military pullout from Lebanon to prevent the economic suffocation of our country because of the blockade imposed by Damascus,” Salam added.

Hundreds of Lebanese trucks have been held up for days on the Lebanese-Syrian border, a key outlet for Lebanese trade with other Arab countries.

On Wednesday Syria’s ruling party newspaper Baath said the hold-ups were due to security controls after the discovery of illegal weapons and travellers on the border.

Another Syrian government newspaper, Al Thawra, meanwhile reported that Damascus would demand compensation from Lebanon for Syrian workers attacked in Lebanon following the murder in February of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Many have blamed Hariri’s killing on Damascus and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government.

Siniora has said he would travel soon to Syria to smooth over differences but Salam insisted he must focus on the 1991 “brotherhood” treaty between Syria and Lebanon which underlines “privileged ties” between the two neighbours.

Siniora will also have to tackle ways of reducing Lebanon’s staggering public debt which stands at $35.5 billion, revamp the economy and modernise state institutions that stagnated under Syria’s rule.

Another challenge will be to “recreate national unity in the country which has suffered by the emergence of religious strife” during the latest legislative elections, Salam said.

Siniora, a 62-year-old former finance minister and close ally of Rafiq Hariri, must still get parliament’s approval for his Cabinet which reflects the clout of anti-Syrian groups who won a majority in parliament in the May-June polls.

“It is a coherent team… chosen to overcome the challenges confronting Lebanon,” Siniora said.

It includes eight ministers known for close ties with Syria, including three accountable to Lahoud, as wells as five Shiites backed by Hizbollah and the pro-Syrian Shiite Amal movement.

Lahoud’s aide suspect in Hariri probe
BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said Wednesday it was vital that a UN probe found who was behind the killing of its former prime minister, after the head of his presidential guard was named as a suspect.

“Events have ensued in Lebanon for months and we are facing great challenges, because the repercussions caused by the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, which shook the country, are still there,” Lahoud said. The pro-Syrian president himself is under fire over suspicions that Damascus and its allies in Beirut had a hand in the February killing of Hariri, a five-time prime minister and billionaire business tycoon. “It is important to follow the actions of the UN Commission of Inquiry to find out what happened. We are suffering numerous problems that must be handled transparently,” said Lahoud, whose comments were reported by Information Minister Ghazi Aridi.

Lahoud, who was addressing the first meeting of the new Cabinet, did not specifically make reference to a report that Mustafa Hamdan, the head of his presidential guard, was a suspect in the case.

Anti-Syrian figures blamed Lahoud and the “Syrian-Lebanese police regime” for assassinating Hariri, who was killed along with 19 others in a bomb attack on the Beirut seafront on February 14.

They also accuse elements within the Syrian regime of being behind the killings of an anti-Damascus politician and journalist last month.

“On the basis of evidence gathered, we have a suspect, Mustafa Hamdan,” the head of the UN probe Detlev Mehlis told the French newspaper Le Figaro.

“He was one of the first persons questioned because we had information that he is the one of those who gave orders to change the scene of the crime, just after the attack. Why was this cleaned up? Deliberately? Through negligence? Both? I have quite a clear idea. But we are still in an investigation stage. I can’t tell you any more.”

The UN commission of inquiry was ordered after a fact-finding mission found major flaws in Lebanon’s own probe.

The UN investigators on June 21 searched the office and home of Hamdan and took him in for questioning.

Of six government leaders accused by the anti-Syrian opposition of having a hand in Hariri’s murder, Hamdan is the only one still in office.

Mehlis told Le Figaro investigators would “very soon” question Rostom Ghazaleh, who was head of Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon at the time of the attack.

Check Also

IDF believes members of Hamas cell targeted in West Bank raid still on the loose

2 soldiers wounded during overnight clashes likely hit by friendly fire; IDF chief says raids …