Lebanese president asks ex-PM Hariri to form new government

BEIRUT (AP) " Lebanon's prime minister designate vowed on Thursday to work swiftly to put together a "national unity government that overcomes political divisions" that have plagued the Mideast nation for years.

The pledge by Saad Hariri, who already served as prime minister for 14 months until early 2011, came shortly after the country's newly elected president, Michel Aoun, asked him to form a new Cabinet.

That process can go on for weeks or even months, and usually involves much bargaining among Lebanon's notoriously fragmented politicians. The government must then win parliament's approval.

Aoun's office made the announcement about Hariri after two days of talks with lawmakers over their choice of prime minister. The statement didn't say how many lawmakers supported the 46-year-old Hariri for the post.

A Christian leader and strong ally of the Shiite Hezbollah group, Aoun was elected by parliament as president on Monday, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum in Lebanon. His election was made possible after Hariri endorsed him for president, based on an understanding that Aoun would then appoint him as prime minister.

"It is a new era," a beaming Hariri told journalists gathered at the Baabda presidential palace, repeating the phrase three times.

"I have great hope -in this positive moment that ends the suffering of the country and its citizens that lasted for two and a half years of vacancy and paralysis," he said.

According to Lebanon's sectarian-based power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Muslim Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.

The Aoun-Hariri deal is an unlikely partnership between rivals: Aoun, a longtime Syria foe now allied with pro-Syrian forces, and Hariri, a vocal opponent of President Bashar Assad and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Many Lebanese are skeptical Aoun's election would make a difference or that the country's perpetually divided politicians and dysfunctional politics would change.

Still, most have breathed a sigh of relief that the country's top post has been filled following a two-year vacuum that brought state institutions dangerously close to collapse. That the country was able to execute a peaceful election in a region wracked by violence and conflict, however, was seen as a small victory for Lebanon.

"We owe it to the Lebanese to start working as soon as possible to protect our country from the flames burning around it, to reinforce its immunity in the face of terrorism, to help it deal with the difficulty of the refugees' issue," Hariri said.

Hariri is the son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman and influential politician who was assassinated in a massive seaside bombing in 2005 in Beirut. Several Hezbollah members are being tried in absentia for the killing by a Netherlands-based U.N.-backed tribunal.

Hariri, who holds a Georgetown University degree in international business, was a political novice thrown into politics when he took over his father's political mantle after the senior Hariri was killed.

He headed a 14-month national unity government from late 2009 until early 2011, which collapsed after Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the Cabinet in a dispute over upcoming indictments in Rafik Hariri's assassination.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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