(photo credit: AP)
BEIRUT — Lebanon's Hizbullah-backed candidate for prime minister began the process of forming a new cabinet on Wednesday, as calm returned to the country after two days of protests against Hizbullah's growing influence.
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Police and army troops opened all roads and removed barriers across the nation, while Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati took the first step in forming a new cabinet by visiting former prime ministers. Hizbullah and its allies ousted the Western-backed government two weeks ago when they quit the cabinet.
Mikati, a billionaire businessman and Harvard graduate, has called for a unity government that would bring together Lebanon's diverse society. Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri has insisted he will not join a government led by a Hizbullah pick.
But the fact that Hizbullah, a group known as much for its ties to Shi'ite Iran as for its hostility to Israel, chose Mikati and secured enough backing in parliament to make him prime minister underscores Teheran's growing influence in the region at a time when Washington's is waning.
Wary of Hizbullah's position, thousands of Sunnis poured into the streets across Lebanon over the past two days, burning tires, throwing rocks and accusing the militant group of a coup d'etat.
Some of the most intense protests Tuesday took place in the northern city of Tripoli, a hotbed of Sunni fundamentalism and Mikati's hometown. On Wednesday, traffic had returned to normal and schools and shops had opened. Two armored personnel carriers and several soldiers stood guard nearby.
Opponents of Hizbullah, which has its own arsenal and is the country's most powerful military force, maintain that having an Iranian proxy at the helm of Lebanon's government would be disastrous and lead to international isolation.
Hariri's Future Movement placed banners in Tripoli that accused Mikati
of being given a "religious assignment" by Iran's Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the spiritual leader for many Hizbullah
members, including the group's chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
But both Hizbullah and Mikati are calling for a government that includes
all of Lebanon's political factions, a sign that the militant group
does not want to push its growing power too far and risk isolation
abroad and an escalation of sectarian tensions at home.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that
formation of a government dominated by Hizbullah would mean changes in
US relations with Lebanon.