Lebanon's Hariri Wants Unity Government With Hezbollah

The pro-Western politician likely to be PM is setting aside the issue of disarming the militant group.

The pro-Western politician favored to become Lebanon's next prime minister is setting aside the explosive issue of disarming the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, 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 U.S.- and Saudi-backed coalition after its victory against Iranian-backed Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah victory could have been a serious obstacle to U.S. President Barack Obama's search for Mideast peace.

But the heavily armed, staunchly anti-Israeli Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah, 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.

But governments led by Hariri ally Fouad Siniora the past four years have avoided tackling the weapons issue and even formally backed Hezbollah's role as resistance to Israel, fearing a confrontation with the powerful militant group. Hezbollah'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 Siniora to curb the group's military communications network in May 2008 led to street battles in which Hezbollah 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 Siniora took the post.

Siniora'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 Siniora's government was largely paralyzed by a power struggle with the Hezbollah-led opposition.

In a compromise after the 2008 clashes, Hezbollah was brought into the government, with enough power to veto major decisions.

One possible dispute in forming the next government will be whether Hezbollah and its allies retain that power. Hariri's allies don't want to give the opposition that much say, while Hezbollah'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.

EU's Solana arrives in Beirut for talks

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana arrived late Friday in Beirut for talks with Lebanese officials, during which he will discuss the latest post-election developments with the various Lebanese parties.

"I am happy to be in Lebanon, and I am performing an analysis of the latest developments with all the officials of your country, especially the new phase that kicked off after the elections," Solana said after meeting with Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun.

Solana added that "there are serious talks to deepen and consolidate the relations between Lebanon and the EU, which is a constant supporter of Lebanon."

Solana's visit will last two days, and will include meetings with Lebanese officials and various party leaders, including MPs from the Hezbollah movement.

Lebanon held parliamentary elections on June 7, during which the Western-backed majority won the election from the Hezbollah-led opposition, to whom Aoun's movement belongs.