Thursday, May 29, 2008

Suleiman asks Siniora to stay on as PM, preside over new unity government

Suleiman asks Siniora to stay on as PM, preside over new unity government
Hariri insists nomination was not intended as 'challenge' to opposition

By Hussein Abdallah and Nafez Qawas
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: President Michel Suleiman appointed incumbent Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Wednesday to head a government of national unity after the parliamentary majority gave Siniora its backing. Of the 127 members in Parliament, 68 MPs named Siniora as their candidate. "Based on his consultations with members of Parliament ... the president has asked Fouad Siniora to form a new government," the presidency said. Siniora told reporters after arriving at the Presidential Palace in Baabda and meeting with Suleiman that he would seek to bridge the gaps among all rival parties as he forms a new government and begins a new term as prime minister.

Before meeting with Siniora, Suleiman also met Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and informed him of the result of the consultations. "I extend my hand for cooperation and solidarity, so that our country can achieve the breakthroughs it deserves," Siniora said. He added that he hoped all parties would draw lessons from recent events that must not be repeated. "I call on all of you to heal the wounds and to overcome the divisions we have experienced and not to resort to violence to solve our problems," he said. "I look to the future with great hope that we will go from a situation where we suffered greatly to one that the Lebanese people aspire to, that is stability, constructive work and democratic competition." Siniora, 64, will begin consultations on Friday afternoon with the various parliamentary blocs on forming a 30-member cabinet of national unity in which the opposition will have veto power over key decisions.

Formation of a unity government is a key plank of a deal hammered out by rival factions last week to end an 18-month political crisis that boiled over into deadly fighting and threatened to plunge the nation back into civil war. Under the deal, the ruling bloc will hold 16 seats in the new cabinet, the opposition 11, and the president will appoint three ministers. Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri - who had also been tipped as a possible prime minister - said his bloc had decided to nominate Siniora again as he was the best man for the job. "We didn't name Siniora as a challenge [to the opposition] but as a move toward real reconciliation and to turn over a new page," he told reporters Wednesday after meeting Suleiman. MP Walid Jumblatt, head of the Democratic Gathering bloc, also named Siniora for the post, and so did the Lebanese Forces. Out of 68 majority MPs, only one did not commit to the decision taken by the March 14 coalition: Beirut MP Bahij Tabbarah told reporters he named Hariri and not Siniora. But independent MPs Michel Murr, former opposition member, surprisingly named Siniora for the post, thus securing 68 votes.

The opposition made clear it was not satisfied with the choice of Siniora, saying he did not reflect the spirit of national unity called for in Doha. "His nomination is a recipe for conflict rather than reconciliation," Reform and Change bloc leader Michel Aoun said. "It seems the ruling bloc, rather than battling for a new Lebanon, is seeking to unleash a new conflict." He added, however, that the opposition would not stand in the way of forming a new government. "We are determined to take part in the government without offering our backing to the premier," Aoun said. "We will take part in the cabinet as an opposition force." Aoun told reporters that his bloc named three candidates for the post; former Minister Leila al-Solh, Tabbarah, and Public Works and Transportation Minister Mohammad Safadi. While Solh is independent, Tabbarah and Safadi are members of the parliamentary majority. Aoun's allies in the opposition, Hizbullah and Amal Movement abstained from naming any candidate for the post.

After meeting with Suleiman, Hizbullah MP Mohammad Raad said that the next prime minister should be concerned about "preserving the arms of the resistance, and should be against any form of foreign patronage." "We did not name any candidate, but we believe that the Lebanese are in deep need of a positive shock at the beginning of the new presidential term," Raad said. After being officially named by Suleiman, Siniora hailed the president's inaugural address during his election on Sunday and said that his [Siniora's] vision conforms with that of the president on many issues. "The president's inaugural speech revived the role of the presidency, which we missed for a long time," Siniora said, referring to the six months of presidential vacuum that followed the end of Emile Lahoud's term last November. Siniora added that all parties in the next government, which he described as "the government of all Lebanon," should cooperate together to face future economic and political challenges. "We should work to liberate the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms and to resume the reconstruction in Beirut's southern suburbs and the South," he said. "We should also protect the right of our brother Palestinians to return to their homes." Siniora also focused on strengthening the Lebanese Army to enable it to face the enemy and preserve peace and stability in the country. At the end of his speech, Siniora recalled those "who were targeted by assassination, violence, and terrorism." "We must also remember the people who lost their lives in the wrong place and at the wrong time," the premier said, referring to the recent casualties after deadly clashes between opposition and pro-government supporters in different areas of the country. The violence left at least 65 people dead and 250 others wounded. - With AFP

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