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Lebanon factions form a new Cabinet

Special to The Times

Two months after fighting in the capital left scores dead, squabbling Lebanese factions on Friday formed a new Cabinet in which the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and its allies control key ministries and have the power to veto major decisions.

The Cabinet will serve only until the middle of next year, when elections may determine whether Hezbollah and its allies, which are supported by Iran and Syria, or the Western-backed coalition led by Saad Hariri takes control of the country in coming years.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the new 30-member government would try to restore confidence in Lebanon’s political system and prepare for the elections.

“Lebanon will emerge from this crisis stronger,” he said.

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The country’s politicians will have to deal with serious economic problems and settle differences over major issues such as Hezbollah’s armament.

“This is only a truce,” said Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut’s St. Joseph University. “The next battle will be the drafting of a government policy and more precisely agreeing over the status of Hezbollah.”

Still, the formation of the government was expected to give a push to the economy and encourage visits by foreign tourists and the return of Lebanese expatriates.

An accord brokered in May in Doha, the capital of Qatar, ended the armed conflict and led to the election of a consensus president, Michel Suleiman. The deal gave the Hezbollah-led faction veto power over government decisions.

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The formation of the government came one day before Suleiman was to leave for Paris on his first official visit outside Lebanon.

“The French have pressed Lebanese politicians to form a government before President Suleiman heads to Paris,” said a Western diplomat in Beirut, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They said that it would be better for the image of Lebanon and its stability.”

Suleiman is scheduled to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad today in Paris, a sign of detente between their countries. Lebanon’s relations with Syria have been strained for four years, since Hariri and his allies accused Syria of a campaign of assassinations in Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its allies received 11 ministries. The bloc of Hezbollah’s Christian ally, lawmaker Michel Aoun, was granted key service agencies: social affairs, telecommunications, agriculture and power. Control of these highly visible ministries gives Aoun an opportunity to demonstrate his administrative acumen to Christian voters. Aoun did not participate in the previous government.

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The Hariri-led coalition received 16 ministries, including the coveted finance portfolio.

“We are making sacrifices in the interests of the country,” said Hariri, who is backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Suleiman named three of the posts, including the heads of two main ministries, Interior and Defense.

Elias Murr remained defense minister, though Hezbollah had objected to his nomination, accusing him of belonging to the pro-U.S. camp. The Interior Ministry, which will supervise the parliamentary elections, was handed to Ziad Baroud, a prominent lawyer.

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Political power in Lebanon is shared among Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Druze. The country is polarized between two camps led by Sunnis and Shiites. Christians are divided between the two groups.


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