June 27, 2005

Lebanon assembly blocs back pro-Syrian as speaker

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's main parliamentary blocs haveagreed to back the re-election of Nabih Berri, virtuallyguaranteeing the strong Syrian ally will secure the post ofparliament speaker, political sources said on Monday.

The 128-member assembly look set to re-elect Berri when itholds its first meeting since the May 29-June 19 elections onTuesday, despite international reservations over one of themain enforcers of Syria's grip on Lebanon.

The elections were won by groups that opposed Syria's rolein Lebanon for the first time since the 1975-1990 civil war,but the country's delicate sectarian balance means lawmakershave little choice but to back Berri, a Shi'ite Muslim,political sources said.

Berri's alliance with the Hizbollah guerrilla group wonmore than 80 percent of the Shi'ite vote in the polls, whichmakes replacing him appear like parliament is defying the willof a large segment of the Lebanese people, the sources said.

Lebanon's sectarian system divides top government positionsamong its main religious sects. The country's president isalways a Maronite Christian, prime minister a Sunni Muslim andparliament speaker a Shi'ite.

Shi'ites, the country's largest sect, had largely stayedaway from anti-Syrian protests after the Feb. 14 assassinationof former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The protests helpedforce Syria to bow to international pressure to end its 29-yearmilitary presence in Lebanon in April.

Western diplomats had said they hoped Berri would beremoved to make way for change in the post-Syria era.

But the parliamentary blocs of Saad al-Hariri, theex-premier's son and unofficial majority leader, and Druzechieftain Walid Jumblatt agreed to support Berri, who has beenspeaker since 1992, after he pledged to back reform.

Berri's re-election is likely to boost Hizbollah in itsdrive to defy a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding itdisarms and complicates any attempt to remove President EmileLahoud, a close ally of Syria.

After the election of a parliament speaker, focus willshift to choosing a new prime minister.

The sources said top Hariri aide and former financeminister Fouad Siniora was now favorite to land the job afterHariri, 35, appeared to rule himself out due to lack ofexperience and frosty ties with Lahoud.