Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Monday he won't take part in any future government headed by a Hezbollah-backed candidate, raising the stakes in a crisis that many fear could descend into violence.
Hariri made the announcement as President Michel Suleiman began two days of consultations with lawmakers over their choice of premier.
Lebanon will likely see lengthy negotiations to form a new government after Hezbollah toppled Hariri's Western-backed unity government on Jan. 12 over his refusal to renounce a UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Many fear Hezbollah will react violently if its members are indicted, as is widely expected. Hezbollah, which gets support from Syria and Iran, is Lebanon's most powerful armed force.
Now, both sides are scrambling for enough support to form a government.
Hezbollah and its allies, known as the March 8 bloc, are believed to have chosen moderate politician and billionaire businessman Najib Mikati as their candidate. Mikati, who served briefly as premier in 2005, announced late Sunday that he is seeking the post as a candidate of "moderation and accord."
After Monday's meeting with Suleiman, Mikati presented himself as a consensual candidate, reaching out to all sides.
"I don't distinguish between anyone. I extend my hand to everyone without exception ... I say to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, let us all work together for the sake of Lebanon," he told reporters.
But Mikati dodged a question if he would end Lebanon's cooperation with the international court - a key Hezbollah demand - saying only that "any dispute can be solved only through dialogue."
A statement issued by Hariri's office, however, said there is no "consensual candidate."
"There is a candidate named Saad Hariri, and another candidate for the March 8 forces, and the choice in this regard is clear and unambiguous," the statement said.
Hariri said his Future movement will not participate in any government headed by a Hezbollah-backed candidate.
Lawmaker Oqab Sakr said Mikati's candidacy was "a clear challenge to the will of the parliamentary and popular majority."
The support of at least 65 lawmakers is required to form a government in Lebanon's 128-seat Parliament. Hezbollah and its allies already claim 57 seats. Saad Hariri has 60.
Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druze sect who heads an 11-member bloc in Parliament, said this week he was supporting Hezbollah and Syria.
He is believed to have secured for Hezbollah the votes of at least seven lawmakers from his bloc, which would bring the militant group only one seat short of majority to govern on its own.
The Hezbollah leader said Sunday the group and its allies will seek to form a new unity government with their rivals in Lebanon's Western-backed political bloc if the candidate they are backing is chosen to be prime minister.
A Harvard graduate, Mikati is seen as a relatively neutral figure who enjoys good relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad and also with the pro-Western Hariri, who himself is seeking to keep the post.
Mikati, whose wealth is estimated at $2.5 billion is on the Forbes list of world billionaires. In the 1980s, during Lebanon's civil war, he founded telecom company Investcom with his elder brother, Taha. They sold the company to South Africa's MTN Group for $5.5 billion in 2006.
The Mikati brothers now run M1 Group, a multibillion dollar holding company with interests in telecom, oil and gas and real estate, among other things.
Last year, M1 bought a 13.95 percent stake in Bank Audi, Lebanon largest bank, for $450 million.
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