Hariri won't urge Hizbullah disarmament

Lebanese premier hopeful says he plans to focus agenda on achieving unity with his political foes.

Saad Hariri 248.88 (photo credit: )
Saad Hariri 248.88
(photo credit: )
The pro-Western politician favored to become Lebanon's next prime minister is setting aside the explosive issue of disarming Hizbullah, saying Friday he hopes for unity with his political foes in the sharply divided country. The comments by Saad Hariri in an interview with The Associated Press reflect the tough choices facing his US- and Saudi-backed coalition after its victory against Iranian-backed Hizbullah and its allies. His faction maintained its majority in parliament, handing a blow to Syria's and Iran's attempts to strengthen their influence in Lebanon. A Hizbullah victory could have been a serious obstacle to President Barack Obama's search for Mideast peace. But the heavily armed, staunchly anti-Israeli Hizbullah remains a potent force in Lebanon, and past attempts to rein in its power have nearly pushed the country into civil war. Hariri has signaled he is willing to form a national unity government including Hizbullah, but it will probably take weeks of negotiations to work out the balance of power. The 39-year-old Hariri, a billionaire businessman, struck a conciliatory tone Friday, telling AP he wants to focus on what unites rather than what divides Lebanon's factions. "Today, we came out with a majority and there is an extended hand to everyone," he said. "I think what's best for the country we need to work on unifying all our efforts toward making sure that what we do all of us is for the benefit of the people of Lebanon." Despite political differences between the two camps, he said, it "should not make us stop from working and achieving big projects and big issues for the Lebanese people." He said the issue of Hizbullah's powerful arsenal of weapons - including rockets - would remain an issue for a "national dialogue" that the parties have been conducting periodically the past three years but has made almost no progress on the issue of weapons. "We had this dialogue table on how to work on the defense strategy of Lebanon. We will see where it goes from there," he said. The referral to the dialogue signaled that a Hariri government would not make a major push to disarm Hizbullah. Some Hariri supporters - particularly in the Christian community - want the Shi'ite guerrilla force's weapons taken away, as does the United States and United Nations. But governments led by Hariri ally Fuad Saniora the past four years have avoided tackling the weapons issue and even formally backed Hizbullah's role as "resistance" to Israel, fearing a confrontation with the powerful militant group. Hizbullah's forces, backed by some 30,000 rockets, were able to fend off Israel's military in a 2006 war and are considered more powerful than Lebanon's military. A move by Saniora to curb the group's military communications network in May 2008 led to street battles in which Hizbullah gunmen swept through Sunni pro-government neighborhoods of Beirut, raising fears the country could fall into a new civil war. Hariri was vaulted to the leadership of Lebanon's pro-Western factions after his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in 2005. Hariri is favored to be the next prime minister, and told AP he is ready to take up the job, though he said "it's only fair" to discuss it with his political allies before a final decision is made. "I will not shy away from it this time," Hariri said. "I've gained the experience ... I will not shy away from it. So it means I'm ready." Hariri passed on the premiership after his coalition won a parliament majority in 2005 elections, and Saniora took the post. Saniora's was the first government after Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon amid the uproar over Hariri's assassination, ending 29 years of Damascus' domination of the country. But Saniora's government was largely paralyzed by a power struggle with the Hizbullah-led opposition. In a compromise after the 2008 clashes, Hizbullah was brought into the government, with enough power to veto major decisions. One possible dispute in forming the next government will be whether Hizbullah and its allies retain that power. Hariri's allies don't want to give the opposition that much say, while Hizbullah's main Christian ally insists on keeping veto power. The two sides, however, may be posturing amid what is likely to be heavy wrangling over political positions. Many in Lebanon are hoping for an end to government paralysis. Hariri, whose family made its fortune in construction and telecoms, said he will focus on easing restrictions on business, attracting investment, building infrastructure and the security forces. "I think what we need to concentrate on is what the people really need ... being able to get out of their homes safely, go to their jobs safely and get back also," he said.