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French Version

Mikati interim Cabinet welcomed with caution by Lebanese opposition

Line-up heavy on lahoud allies

Lebanon's premier-designate, Najib Mikati, announced the formation of a new Cabinet Tuesday that will be tasked with leading the country out of political crisis and overseeing parliamentary elections to be held before the end of May.

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The proposed Cabinet, made up of only 14 ministers instead of the previous 30, received tentative approval from the country's opposition movement, whose key demands are that elections be held on time and the public prosecutor and pro-Syrian security chiefs be sacked.

Mikati's Cabinet is made up of mostly new faces, at least eight of which are close to the pro-Syrian regime, with others close to - but not direct members of - the opposition.

Speaking after a closed-door meeting with Lebanon's two pro-Syrian leaders, President Emile Lahoud and Speaker Nabih Berri, Mikati said: "Some people may have reservations about this Cabinet."

He added: "But I assure you that all the members of this Cabinet will not be candidates in the elections. The government will hold parliamentary elections as fast as possible and, God willing, within the constitutional period," which ends May 31.

Mikati said his incoming Cabinet would be short-lived, with its main task being to oversee polls that the opposition and international community have demanded be held on time.

He added: "After that a government of national unity that brings everybody together will see the light."

The premier-designate told reporters: "I demanded the resignation of the security chiefs when I was Najib Mikati, a member of Parliament. Now I'm premier and I will relay my point of view to the Cabinet, and I promise it will agree with me."

Mikati, a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Syrian leadership, was appointed Friday after he pledged to fulfill key demands of the opposition to hold elections on time and dismiss security chiefs following the February 14 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.

Although the line-up included some of the opposition's arch-foes, it was determined to give the new Cabinet a chance and to show a united face.

Aley MP Akram Shehayeb, an ally of opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, said the opposition will give Mikati a vote of confidence if his ministerial statement, due to be released early next week, comprises the opposition's longstanding demands.

He listed the demands as "the dismissal of security officials and of the public prosecutor, that the elections be held on time and that the Lebanese government be extremely positive in dealing with the international probe into Premier Hariri's murder," and added: "Many people in this Cabinet are extremely respectable. But others are at the service of the intelligence agencies."

Shehayeb said Lahoud "is the big winner in this lineup," given that several of his close allies received key portfolios.

Jumblatt, a leading figure in the opposition, said their share of posts in the Cabinet was too small and not representative of its true force, adding "the division should have been half-half, if not more."

Beirut MP Ghinwa Jalloul, a former ally of Hariri, said although the new government includes "provocative names who are part and parcel of the old regime, we want to be positive. We want to give them a second chance."

Exiled former army commander General Michel Aoun, who heads the opposition Free Patriotic Movement, said from his home in Paris: "I have reservations about the political content of this Cabinet," but he remained reluctant to reject it, adding only that some of the ministers are staunch government loyalists and should have been balanced with stanch opposition candidates.

A similar response came from the Qornet Shehwan Christian opposition gathering, with the group saying it will wait to see the content of the new Cabinet's ministerial statement.

It is understood that both Aoun and the Qornet Shehwan were disappointed by the line-up, which does not include any figure close to the country's Christian opposition.

The controversial figures in the new Cabinet are returning Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud, a close ally of Berri, and President Emile Lahoud's son-in-law, former Interior Minister Elias Murr, who was appointed defense minister.

Other incoming ministers also known to be close to Lahoud include Information and Tourism Minister Charles Rizk; Finance, Economy and Trade Minister Demianos Kattar and Telecommunication Sports and Youth Minister Alain Tabourian.

The Interior Ministry, which will be in charge of organizing the May polls, went to Hassan Sabaa, a retired Sunni officer of the Surete Generale.

Among ministers close to the opposition is Culture and Education Minister Ghassan Salameh, a former Hariri ally who was Culture Minister from 2000 to 2003 and is widely praised for his term in the ministry.

It is hoped that the formation of a "national unity government" will help ease the crisis that has rocked the country since Hariri's murder. The new Cabinet will hold its first meeting this afternoon.

Hizbullah's stance was similar to that of the opposition.

MP Abdullah Qassir, a member of the Islamic resistance group, said: "We consider the formation of this Cabinet to be a positive step for the country and we welcome it."

But Qassir said the party's parliamentary bloc will only support Mikati's Cabinet if its ministerial statement meets the party's expectations.

Lebanon had been without a government since outgoing Premier Omar Karami resigned on February 28, caving in to massive public protests over Hariri's murder.

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Beirut 19-04-2005
Nayla Assaf
The Daily Star

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