June 28, 2005

Lebanon new parliament re-elects pro-Syrian speaker

By Lin Noueihed

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's new parliament re-electedpro-Syrian Nabih Berri as speaker on Tuesday, in a compromisehighlighting the struggle its anti-Syrian majority faces inerasing Damascus' influence.

The warlord-turned-politician's return is likely to boostHizbollah's drive to defy a U.N. Security Council resolutiondemanding its guerrillas disarm and complicates any attempt toremove President Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Syria.

The 128-seat assembly, dominated by opponents of Syria forthe first time since the 1975-1990 civil war, voted by anoverwhelming majority of 90 for Berri, despite internationaland local reservations over retaining one of the main enforcersof Syria's grip over its tiny neighbor.

Though the May 29-June 19 elections were won by groups thatopposed Syria's role, they had little choice but to back Berrifor a fourth straight term after his alliance with theHizbollah guerrilla group won over 80 percent of the Shi'iteMuslim vote.

That made it difficult for parliament to replace himwithout appearing to defy the will of a large segment of theLebanese.

Fireworks and gunfire crackled through the capital asdelighted supporters celebrated the return of the charismaticformer lawyer.

In his first speech to parliament after winning the vote,Berri indicated he would oppose efforts to disarm Hizbollah'sguerrillas, who helped end Israel's 22-year occupation of southLebanon in 2000, and who now control the volatile border.

"Last time we neglected the south and left it exposed, wefound the enemy (Israel) knocking on the door of our capitalwith a fireball," Berri told the house.

Berri, leader of the Amal Movement, has held the positionof speaker, the highest open to a Shi'ite under Lebanon'ssectarian system, since 1992.


Shi'ites, the country's largest religious sect, had largelystayed away from anti-Syrian protests after the Februaryassassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Thoseprotests helped force Syria to bow to international pressure toend its 29-year military grip on Lebanon in April.

Western diplomats had said they hoped Berri would beremoved to allow Lebanon a fresh start without the Syrians.

But the parliamentary blocs of Saad al-Hariri, the slainex-premier's son and unofficial majority leader, and Druzechieftain Walid Jumblatt agreed to support Berri after hepledged to back reform.

"On the issue of corruption...we will open all the fileswithout exception...after granting immunity to inspectionbodies and (ensuring) the independence of the judiciary," Berrisaid.

Lebanon's sectarian system divides top government postsamong its main religious communities. The country's presidentis always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a SunniMuslim and the parliament speaker a Shi'ite.

After the election of a parliament speaker, focus shifts tothe more delicate task of choosing a new prime minister to formthe next cabinet.

Hariri aide and former finance minister Fouad Siniora isfavorite to land the job, political sources say, after Hariri,35, appeared to rule himself out due to lack of experience andfrosty ties with Lahoud.

Lahoud must accept the new legislators' choice of primeminister but the formation of the new cabinet could be morecontentious. The lineup must be approved by the president,making it more difficult for the anti-Syrian bloc to secure acabinet dominated by its allies.

Berri promised the first parliament session would discuss amotion demanding Christian warlord Samir Geagea be freed fromjail. Geagea is the only militia leader to pay a judicial pricefor his crimes during the war, in what Maronites see as thetargeting of their under the Syrian-dominated order.

The anti-Syrian opposition allied with Geagea's right-wingLebanese Forces in the elections and have urged his release asa step toward national reconciliation after the Syrianwithdrawal.

(Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine)