(photo credit: AP [file])
Lebanese lawmakers overwhelmingly re-elected a pro-Hizbullah parliament speaker Thursday despite the Iranian-backed group's recent election loss, signaling that the political factions are moving toward a unity government.
Lebanese leaders have been looking for a fresh start after a divisive election.
The June 7 vote brought victory for the Western-backed coalition which fought off a strong challenge from the militant group Hizbullah and its allies. But it also underscored the deep divisions among the Lebanese.
Re-electing Hizbullah ally Nabih Berri for a fifth consecutive term is expected to smooth the way for the formation of a new government in the coming weeks. Majority leader Saad Hariri is tipped to head it.
Hariri said picking Berri for the job "consolidates national unity and preserves civil peace."
The choice of Berri, a Shi'ite Muslim, respects Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing structure that calls for the speaker to be a Shi'ite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the president a Maronite Catholic. Both Parliament and Cabinet are divided in half between Muslims and Christians.
Berri heads the Shi'ite Amal movement that together with Hizbullah control most of the Shi'ites' 27 seats in the 128-member legislature.
He was the sole candidate for the post, which he has held since 1992.
Celebratory gunfire erupted across Beirut and in Shi'ite villages in south Lebanon after Berri was approved with 90 of the 127 votes cast. His supporters drove around the city waving green flags of his Amal party. A Berri rival was re-elected as his deputy.
Security officials said later in the day that one woman died and 10 people were wounded by the gunfire. The woman died of a heart attack triggered when gunmen opened fire near her apartment, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
President Michel Suleiman's office later said the president would begin consultations with lawmakers on Friday about a prime minister-designate. The discussions are expected to last through Saturday.
Since the June elections, politicians have been trying to move away from tensions and violence that bedeviled the country in the last four years, including assassinations of several legislators, sectarian street clashes and deep political paralysis.
Berri addressed lawmakers after his appointment, urging rivals to assist in the formation of a national unity government.
The Lebanese should "benefit from favorable regional and international developments ... to consolidate peace and stability," he said. "This requires that we contribute toward the creation of a national government."
The US administration has reached out to Syria and Iran as part of President Barack Obama's drive to engage the Arab and Islamic worlds, and is currently making a fresh push for Arab-Israeli peace.
Many in Lebanon's parliament majority, which takes an anti-Syrian line, had misgivings about Berri's re-election because of his pro-Syrian and Hizbullah ties.
Berri's armed supporters joined Hizbullah in briefly seizing Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut from pro-government factions in street clashes in May 2008. But a power-sharing agreement after the fighting ushered in a unity government and allowed for a peaceful election earlier this month.
Following the elections, Israel voiced concern that Hizbullah might try to regain its lost prestige in the Lebanese elections with an attack on the northern border. The Foreign Ministry reiterated that Jerusalem would hold the new Lebanese government responsible for any military activity emanating from its territory.
A defense source said following the vote tha Hizbullah was defeated largely because of widespread dissatisfaction among the Lebanese people over the Second Lebanon War.
"For the entire time since the end of the war [in August 2006], Hizbullah said the conflict strengthened it, since it was the only one to stand up against Israel. These elections prove that the Lebanese didn't buy that claim," the source said.