Lebanon president set to appoint PM

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese President Michel Suleiman will appoint a prime minister on Wednesday to head a new cabinet that will be formed as part of an agreement to end 18 months of political conflict.

Suleiman, who took office on Monday, one day after his election by parliament, will consult lawmakers on Wednesday on their choice for prime minister, a statement from the presidency said. He will ask the candidate nominated by most MPs to form the next government.

The parliamentary majority is expected to nominate its leader, Saad al-Hariri, or current prime minister, Fouad Siniora, to lead the new cabinet.

Qatar last week mediated the agreement between the U.S.-backed ruling coalition and an opposition led by Hezbollah — a group allied to Syria and Iran — defusing a crisis that had caused the worst civil strife since Lebanon’s 1975-90 war.

The Doha deal gave the opposition effective veto power in the cabinet — one of its main demands.

Suleiman, whose election was part of the agreement, has won public backing from the United States, and Iran and Syria.

U.S. President George W. Bush congratulated Suleiman on his election in a telephone call and invited him to Washington for talks. “President Bush reiterated his commitment to the government of Lebanon and to a strong and modern Lebanese Armed Forces,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said his country had played an active role in encouraging the Doha talks.

“We are very happy to see that the Doha dialogue has yielded benefit,” he told reporters in Beirut.

Under Lebanon’s complex power-sharing system, the president is always Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim.

Suleiman, commander of the army for a decade, moved into the presidential palace on Monday, taking up an official residence that has stood empty since November because of the crisis.

A military band played the national anthem as Suleiman walked on a red carpet into the Baabda Palace which has been empty since Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Syria, left office.

The conflict between the ruling alliance, which has struggled against Syrian influence in Lebanon, and the opposition, led by the Damascus- and Tehran-backed Hezbollah, was brought to an end last week by a Qatari-mediated deal.

Followers of Hariri, Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni figure, were among those routed by Shi’ite Hezbollah, a political group with a powerful guerrilla army. The fighting killed 81 people.

Were he to become prime minister, Hariri would take up a post previously held by his father Rafik al-Hariri, whose February 14, 2005 assassination plunged Lebanon into more than three years of crisis.

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