Lebanon PM wants dialogue to solve tribunal dispute

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BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah-backed prime minister designate Najib Mikati said on Wednesday he sought good relations with all countries after Washington expressed concern over the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group’s role in his nomination.

"We (want) to maintain very good relations with the international community and with all Arab nations. This is very important in our policy," Mikati told Reuters in an interview at a well-guarded residential apartment in central Beirut.

"Lebanon cannot afford to confront any country."

The choice of Mikati, a centrist lawmaker and telecoms tycoon, to lead Lebanon’s next government was seen as a victory for Hezbollah, shifting the balance of power in Lebanon towards its regional allies Syria and Iran.

But Mikati told Reuters he would seek consensus in Lebanon on dealing with a UN-backed tribunal which triggered the political crisis that brought down the previous government.

A still-secret indictment issued last week is expected to accuse members of Hezbollah of involvement in the 2005 killing of statesman Rafik Al-Hariri.

The group, which wants Lebanon to cut ties with the tribunal, denies any role in the killing.

Mikati’s nomination on Tuesday sparked national protests by supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri, son of the assassinated Rafik. His government collapsed two weeks ago when Hezbollah and its allies resigned in protest at his refusal to withdraw funding and Lebanese judges from the tribunal.

Protesters blocked roads with burning tyres and threw stones at soldiers, injuring at least 50 civilians and dozens of soldiers across the country.

Dialogue on tribunal
On the eve of talks to form his new government Mikati was careful not to offer an opinion on the future of Lebanon’s relations with the tribunal at The Hague.

"We will see, through dialogue, what we want to do with the tribunal," he said. "It’s not just my point of view.

"Every (move) we have to take in Lebanon, it has to be on a consensual basis."

Washington and other Western powers have insisted that the work of the tribunal continue. France said on Tuesday the new government must "respect international commitments made by Lebanon, and particularly for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon".

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that the emergence of a Hezbollah-controlled government would "clearly have an impact" on US relations with Lebanon, and that Washington was monitoring the formation of the government.

Hezbollah’s role in bringing down Hariri’s government also alarmed Sunni Arab states, wary of Iran’s influence in the region. It was not clear how many ministers Hezbollah might have in the new government.

Mikati was nominated prime minister on Tuesday after winning backing of 68 of parliament’s 128 deputies, including Hezbollah and its political allies, and is due to start formal talks on building his government coalition on Thursday.

"The burden is not light and I need the support of everybody," he said, adding he still hoped Hariri and his Future Movement would join the cabinet.

"I’m keen, and I’ve asked, and I insist that they will participate and it’s up to them to decide," he said.

Mikati said he would not rush forming the government since the constitution sets no deadline. He would seek a cabinet of technocrats if Hariri declined to join.

Mikati served briefly as prime minister in 2005 following the assassination of the elder Hariri. It plunged Lebanon into a series of crises which included assassinations, brief internal fighting and a 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006.

Political conflict between Saad Al-Hariri and Hezbollah throughout 2010 paralysed their 14-month unity government. It failed to introduce much-needed economic reforms at a time when the economy was growing at around 8 percent a year.

"We have a lot of things to do as a government," said Mikati, who advocates a liberal economy and strong private sector. "It is time to shift the economy from recovery to prosperity. We are the kings of losing opportunities."

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