Lebanese lawmakers back Hezbollah candidate for PM

Lebanese soldiers patrol Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut January 25, 2011. Hundreds of supporters of caretaker Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri protested in north Lebanon on Tuesday against the expected nomination of Hezbollah-backed Najib Mikati to form the next government. Photo : REUTERS/ Sharif Karim

BEIRUT, Jan 25 (KATAKAMI.COM / AP)  – A majority of Lebanese lawmakers have voted to support thecandidate for prime minister backed by Iranian ally Hezbollah.

By the end of Tuesday’s voting, Najib Mikati had 68 votes. Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri had 60.

The Shiite militant group is now in position to control Lebanon’s next government. The move has set off angry protests and drew warnings from the U.S. that its support could be in jeopardy.

Thousands of Sunnis waved flags, burned tires and torched a van belonging to Al-Jazeera on Tuesday during a “day of rage” to protest the gains by Hezbollah.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE.

Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of Sunnis waved flags, burned tires and torched a van belonging to Al-Jazeera on Tuesday during a “day of rage” to protest gains by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is on the brink of controlling Lebanon’s next government.

The largest gathering was in the northern city of Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni area and a hotbed of fundamentalists where thousands of people converged at a major square. Al-Jazeera said none of its crew was injured when protesters attacked the station’s van.

The protests come one day after the Iranian-backed Hezbollah — considered a terrorist organization by Washington — secured support in parliament to name its own candidate, former premier Najib Mikati, for the next prime minister.

The militant group’s Western-backed opponents maintain that having an Iranian proxy in control of Lebanon’s government would be disastrous and lead to international isolation.

Hezbollah’s Sunni rivals held protests across Lebanon, including the capital Beirut and the main highway linking the capital with the southern port city of Sidon. A senior military official said several armed men fired in the air in west Beirut, but the army intervened and dispersed them.

Many fear Lebanon’s political crisis could re-ignite sectarian fighting similar to Shiite-Sunni street clashes that killed 81 people in Beirut in 2008. But besides the protest in Tripoli, the gatherings Tuesday were mostly localized and not hugely disruptive.

Mikati urged calm Tuesday and said he wanted to represent all of Lebanon.

“This is a democratic process,” Mikati told reporters. “I want to rescue my country.”

Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman started a second day of consultations Tuesday with lawmakers to name a prime minister, but Mikati already has the 65 votes needed to clinch the position.

Hezbollah brought down caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Western-backed government on Jan. 12 when he refused the group’s demand to cease cooperation with a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hezbollah, which denies any role in the killing, is widely expected to be indicted.

The group can now either form its own government, leaving Hariri and his allies to become the opposition, or it can try to persuade Hariri to join a national unity government. In a speech Sunday night, Hezbollah leaderSheik Hassan Nasrallah said he favored a unity government.

Hariri said Monday he will not join a government headed by a Hezbollah-backed candidate. Hariri’s Future bloc declared a day of peaceful protests Tuesday — but called it a “day of rage” and played on the sectarian dimension of the conflict.

Lawmaker Moustafa Alloush said Monday night that Hezbollah is trying to “belittle the prime ministry” — a position that under Lebanon’s power sharing system is reserved only for Sunnis.

“Any person who accepts Hezbollah’s appointment of prime minister is a betrayal of the people of Tripoli,” Alloush said in a heated news conference, jabbing his finger toward the cameras.

The United States, which has poured in $720 million in military aid since 2006, has tried to move Lebanon firmly into a Western sphere and end the influence of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley warned Monday that continuing U.S. support for Lebanon would be “problematic” if Hezbollah takes a dominant role in the government, though he declined to say what the U.S. would do if Hezbollah’s candidate becomes prime minister.  (*)

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