New Lebanon PM Mikati says he's committed to US ties

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
January 27, 2011 15:48

Billionaire chosen by Hizbullah meets US ambassador; Saniora calls for written stance on Hariri tribunal.

3 minute read.



Najib Mikati

Najib Mikati. (photo credit: AP)

BEIRUT — The billionaire chosen by Hizbullah to become prime minister of Lebanon told the US ambassador Thursday that he is committed to having good ties with Washington.

Najib Mikati met with US Ambassador Maura Connelly days after Washington warned that the formation of a government dominated by the guerrilla group would mean changes in relations with Lebanon.

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The 55-year-old telecom tycoon "confirmed during the meeting the importance of bilateral relations between Beirut and Washington," he said in a statement as he began the process of forming a new government.

Hizbullah denied Thursday that it placed any demands on the billionaire businessman it chose to become prime minister of Lebanon.

The Shi'ite group and its allies toppled Lebanon's Western-backed government two weeks ago and secured enough support in parliament to name Najib Mikati as their pick for prime minister. Critics have expressed concern that Mikati will be beholden to the group's demands — something Mikati has also denied.

"We did not give a list of conditions to Prime Minister Mikati," the head of Hezbollah's 12-member bloc in parliament said. "What we asked for is a national partnership and a national salvation government in which everyone cooperates for the interest of the country."




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Opponents of Hizbullah say having an Iranian proxy at the helm of Lebanon's government would be disastrous and lead to international isolation.

But Mikati has emphasized that he wants to form a unity government and will not be beholden to any one side in Lebanon's fractious politics.

On Thursday, Mikati's opponents pushed him to state his position on an issue that is at the heart of Lebanon's political crisis: a UN-backed tribunal expected to accuse members of Hizbullah of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Hizbullah denies any links to the killing and calls the court a conspiracy by the US and Israel. The group and its allies walked out of the previous government when then-Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri — the slain man's son — refused to denounce the tribunal and cut off Lebanon's 49 percent share of the funding for it.

Sa'ad Hariri has called the walkout a "coup d'etat" and insisted he will never join a government led by a candidate chosen by Hizbullah — suggesting the country could be in for a prolonged stalemate.

Hariri ally and former premier Fuad Saniora on Thursday called on Mikati to put into writing exactly what his stance is on the tribunal. Mikati did not immediately respond, but in recent days he has said he would make a decision based on dialogue with all sides.

Saniora also spoke about Hizbullah's weapons, a contentious issue in Lebanon. Hizbullah insists that it needs to maintain its arsenal to ward off any threat from Israel. But the weapons make Hizbullah the most powerful military force in the country — far stronger even than the national army.

Saniora said the weapons should be put under the control of Lebanese authorities.

"There should be a commitment that the use of any weapons in Lebanon should be restricted of Lebanese authorities," he said in a press conference.

In neighboring Syria — Hizbullah's other foreign patron, besides Iran — Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem urged all sides to join a unity government.

He spoke at a press conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague, who arrived in Syria late Wednesday to hold talks about political developments in Lebanon and the stalled Middle East peace process.

Hague said he discussed the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and risks of broader proliferation in the Middle East.


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