Lebanon's Prime Minister Tries To Form Government

The country remains sharply divided over the impending announcement of indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

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And we're going overseas, next, where there's been a startling political change in Lebanon. The country has a new prime minister and he's backed by the radical Islamic group Hezbollah. He came to power after the previous government fell. That government fell over the expected conclusions of an investigation into the killing of a former prime minister.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut.

PETER KENYON: At the downtown tent, where visitors have come since 2005 to see the burial site of slain Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, supporters of Hariri's son, Saad, have gathered each night since he was toppled from power by Hezbollah and its allies. Last night they vented their frustration at being relegated to minority opposition status.

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KENYON: Standing in the crowd, 60-year-old Leila Turk(ph) says as far as she's concerned, the new prime minister, Najib Mikati, was installed by force of intimidation. She is not among the many Lebanese who see Mikati as a unifying figure who has good ties with all of Lebanon's fractious communities. She hopes that he gets the message that the world is watching to see if Lebanon will continue to respect the international tribunal investigating Rafiq Hariri's assassination.

Ms. LEILA TURK: This is our first demand because there's never been justice in Lebanon. This is the first chance to have real justice with the international tribunal.

KENYON: Yesterday, France weighed in, joining Washington and calling on the new government to continue supporting the tribunal. A pretrial judge in The Hague is weighing sealed draft indictments, which some say may name Hezbollah members as having had a role in the assassination. So far Mikati says he doesn't want to interfere with the tribunal.

But Omar Nashabe, editor of the leftist Al-Akhbar newspaper, which has supported Hezbollah, says there's no question that Mikati is expected to put some distance between Lebanon and the tribunal.

Mr. OMAR NASHABE (Editor, Al-Akhbar Newspaper): Yes, definitely. That was one of the main elements that led to Mr. Mikati being named the prime minister, because Mr. Mikati is the man who's going to find the solution for the problem with the tribunal.

KENYON: Nashabe says critics have a long list of grievances against the tribunal, ranging from selective prosecution to problems with some of the testimony to the fact that it's costing Lebanon tens of millions of dollars a year. Hezbollah has gone further calling the tribunal a tool of, quote, "Zionist and American interference in Lebanese affairs."

Critics have called for Lebanon to stop paying its share of the tribunal's budget and withdrawal all Lebanese participation. But Nashabe says the new prime minister is approaching the issue cautiously. He hopes that Mikati convenes a national conference to find a solution.

Mr. NASHABE: And as the conference is taking place, Prime Minister Mikati could request to put the tribunal on hold until a national consensus is reached.

KENYON: Critics say that the idea that the new prime minister can find consensus on an issue that just cost his predecessor Saad Hariri his job, is unlikely, to put it mildly, especially when emotions are still running high. A meeting yesterday between Mikati and Hariri lasted only a matter of minutes.

At the rally to support Hariri and the international tribunal, politicians now facing life in the opposition struck a defiant tone, saying that when consultations on a new government begin today, they will tell Mikati that their coalition will not join. Analysts say that resolve will be put to the test as negotiations continue, however. Mikati has already dangled the possibility that, if Hariri's coalition joins the cabinet, it could be allocated enough seats to give it an effective veto power on issues in dispute.

Standing away from the politicians and the cameras, a petite woman with an expressive wrinkled face considers the new situation. Zena Fallad(ph) says she's a 75-year-old Sunni woman who never thought she'd live to see the day when Hezbollah would be in power. When asked if she thinks this marks a new era in Lebanese politics, the rise of the Shiites, she doesn't mince words.

Ms. ZENA FALLAD: (Through Translator) No, we're not going to let them. We're going to bring the Israelis and the Americans to fight them.

KENYON: It's the kind of remark that brings more than a little anxiety to people here, not to mention in the rest of the Middle East. Many Lebanese are hoping that Prime Minister Mikati will see his first job as preventing Lebanon with sliding back to sectarian bloodshed.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.

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