Lebanese politician poised to be next premier

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By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — A prominent Lebanese politician is poised to become the next prime minister of Lebanon this weekend after securing the support of a majority of lawmakers from across the country's political spectrum.

President Michel Suleiman began two days of consultations on Friday with members of parliament to pick a new prime minister, but a consensus has already emerged to choose Tammam Salam, a Beirut lawmaker and former minister of culture.

If named as premier, Salam will be face the challenge of holding Lebanon together amid rising sectarian tension resulting from the civil war next door in Syria.

By the end of the first day of consultations, Salam got the support of 87 legislators of the 128-member parliament. Among those who backed Salam was the 12-member bloc of the militant Hezbollah group.

Salam is expected to form a national unity government, a process that could take him a long time because of the sharp divisions among Lebanese politicians, which have increased during the past two years as a result of Syria's crisis.

Outgoing Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned last month over a political deadlock between Lebanon's two main political camps and infighting in his government. Mikati, who was prime minister since June 2011, headed a government that was dominated by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group and its allies.

His abrupt departure last month plunged the nation into uncertainty amid heightened sectarian clashes related to two years of unrest in Syria that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Mikati stepped down to protest the parliament's inability to agree on a law to govern elections set for later this year, as well as the refusal by Hezbollah and its allies in the cabinet to extend the tenure of the country's police chief.

Although leaning toward the Western-backed anti-Hezbollah coalition, Salam, who is the son of the late former Prime Minister Saeb Salam, is seen as a consensus figure.

"I am very happy. Mr. Salam is an honorable man," Mikati told reporters Friday, after naming Salam as his choice.

Lebanon's politics are always fractious, in part because of the sectarian makeup of the country's government. According to Lebanon's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim. Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon's population of 4 million. The 68-year-old Salam is a Sunni Muslim.

The country's two largest political blocs support opposite sides in Syria's civil war. Hezbollah and its allies are staunch supporters of Syria. Their main rival is a Western-backed coalition headed by former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, who was also prime minister and was killed in a truck bombing in 2005.

Following a quick trip to Saudi Arabia for talks with Hariri, Salam was endorsed by the pro-Western coalition that Hariri heads, The coalition, known as March 14, has 60 seats in Lebanon's parliament.

Salam also has won the support of Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, and his faction's seven seats in the parliament, giving Salam majority support of the lawmakers. In addition to Hezbollah, Salam won the backing of the militant group's Christian ally, Michel Aoun, whose group that holds 19 seats in parliament.

The country is due to hold parliamentary elections in the summer, but politicians have been unable to agree on an electoral law.

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