Lebanon's Hariri Said to Endorse Hezbollah Ally Michel Aoun for President

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Lebanon's former prime minister Saad Hariri speaks at a news conference in Beirut, January 25, 2011, after Hezbollah's candidate Najib Mikati was tapped as his replacement.Credit: Reuters

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri intends to endorse Michel Aoun for the country's vacant presidency, political sources said, though a leading member of Hariri's party was quoted as saying the decision was not yet final.

The proposal would result in Aoun, a political ally of the Iranian-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah, becoming head of state and Hariri becoming prime minister for the second time, the senior political sources said.

Political conflict has left the Lebanese presidency empty for 2 1/2 years. The post is reserved for a Maronite Christian in Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing arrangements.

It was not immediately clear if Aoun's candidacy would enjoy enough support among other Lebanese politicians to secure the necessary two-thirds quorum for the vote in the 128-seat parliament. The next scheduled parliamentary session to elect a president is set for Oct. 31.

Opponents of Aoun's candidacy include the influential Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is head of the Shi'ite Amal Movement and a close ally of Hezbollah. Hezbollah itself has yet to comment.

The proposal, unthinkable until recently, casts new light on the predicament facing Hariri, whose standing as Lebanon's most influential Sunni politician has been shaken by a financial crisis at his Saudi-based construction business.

The troubles at Saudi Oger, which has been hit by falling oil prices and subsequent cuts in Saudi state spending, have rippled through Lebanon, leading to layoffs in Hariri's Future Movement. Diplomats say Hariri has fallen from favour in Saudi Arabia, which these days cares far more about confronting Iranian influence in the Gulf and Syria than Lebanon.

Two senior politicians told Reuters that Hariri had expressed his intention to nominate Aoun, who is in his 80s, for the presidency as part of the power-sharing deal.

A third source, a member of Hariri's Future Movement, confirmed Hariri had expressed this intention, but members of his own parliamentary bloc opposed it.

Fouad Siniora, a former prime minister and head of the Future Movement's parliamentary bloc, told the newspaper Daily Star that Hariri had told his MPs on Tuesday that he had decided to support Aoun's candidacy for the presidency, but added that there was "no final decision yet on this matter".

Hariri, 46, led the "March 14" alliance against Hezbollah and its allies, after the assassination of his father, Rafik al-Hariri, in 2005.He became prime minister in 2009, but his cabinet was toppled in 2011 when Hezbollah and its allies resigned.

Aoun heads the largest Christian bloc in the parliament elected in 2009, the last time Lebanese voted. He has been a political ally of Hezbollah since 2006.

Aoun was army commander and led one of two rival governments during the final years of the Lebanese civil war until the Syrian army forced him from the presidential palace and into exile.

He returned to the country in 2005 after Syrian forces withdrew under international pressure following the Hariri assassination.

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