June 30, 2005

Lebanon president bows to majority to appoint PM

By Lucy Fielder

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's pro-Syrian president bowed tothe will of the majority on Thursday and appointed ananti-Syria former minister to head the first government to takeoffice without Syrian troops in the country for 30 years.

Highlighting the challenges facing the next government,Israeli troops shot at Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas in anIsraeli-occupied border area in the second day of the worstviolence seen there in six months.

A Hizbollah spokesman said the guerrillas did not respond.

Fouad Siniora, a former finance minister and aide toassassinated former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, wasproposed by the Future Bloc led by Hariri's son, Saad.

All but two lawmakers nominated Siniora, a choice PresidentEmile Lahoud was obliged to respect though relations betweenthe two are said to be frosty, as they were with the lateHariri.

"I would like to note the positive atmosphere of my meetingwith His Excellency the President, which I hope would pave theway for cooperation between us to the serve the publicinterest," Siniora told reporters.

"This moment is not a moment for political debate orrenewing disputes and differences," he said.

"Therefore we join Mr. Saad al-Hariri in extending hands toall Lebanese people and political forces to move forward with acomprehensive reform program."

Elections that ended on June 19 returned an anti-Syrianmajority to parliament for the first time since Lebanon's1975-1990 civil war.

Syria pulled out its troops in April under Lebanese andinternational pressure after the killing of the elder Hariri,which triggered Lebanon's worst post-war political crisis.

Lahoud met bloc representatives and independent lawmakersto receive their nominations for prime minister, a postreserved for a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon's sectarian politicalsystem. An unprecedented 126 out of 128 backed Siniora.

Agreeing on a government will be more contentious becausepro-Syrian Lahoud can oppose the prime minister's line-up,which is likely to include anti-Syrians and few of Lahoud'sallies.

Siniora remains close to the Hariri family and is thechairman of one of Hariri's banks.

"The martyrdom of premier Rafik al-Hariri is what has putme in this situation," he said. "But no one can replace HisExcellency."

Straight after the speech he went to a central Beirutmosque where Hariri is buried and stood over his grave intears, praying silently.


Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets overnight addressed tothe Lebanese government and people.

Hizbollah had carried out "terrorist acts" to justify itsexistence, they read. "Such irresponsible acts could bringdestruction and take Lebanon back to the years of horror."

The Israeli army said soldiers shot and possibly killed atleast one guerrilla in a firefight with Hizbollah gunmen nearthe Shebaa Farms area, which the United Nations has ruled isIsraeli-occupied Syrian soil but Lebanon claims as its own.

"It was Israeli fire directed at the Lebanese territories.There was no exchange of fire, we did not fire back," theHizbollah spokesman said.

Hizbollah, which was instrumental in driving Israeli troopsfrom the south in 2000 after a 22-year occupation, killed anIsraeli officer on Wednesday in a strike on an army post in theShebaa Farms and drew Israeli retaliatory air raids.

Security across the country is a priority for mostLebanese. Hariri's killing on Feb. 14 was followed by a stringof assassinations and bomb attacks in and around Beirut thathave prompted many to ask: "Who's next?"

Parliament re-elected pro-Syrian Shi'ite Muslim Nabih Berrias speaker on Tuesday in a compromise highlighting how hard itwill be for anti-Syrian lawmakers to erase Damascus'sinfluence.

Pro-Syrian Shi'ite groups Hizbollah and Amal reciprocatedon Thursday by nominating Siniora, but two out of the top threepolitical posts remain in the hands of Syria's allies.

Siniora's appointment will send a good signal to investorsand the business community. He was finance minister for most ofLebanon's post-civil war period under Hariri and is creditedwith controlling spending and introducing post-war taxes.

Tackling tiny Lebanon's debt burden -- one of the world'sheaviest at about $36 billion, or about 185 percent of its GDP-- must be a priority for the next government.