07/20/2005, 00.00
LEBANON
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Fouad Siniora's government off to a start

by Youssef Hourany
Michel Aoun's party is out, Hizbollah is in . . . for the first time.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The first post-Syrian government emerged from the Presidential Palace after 18 days of negotiations and six meetings, the last of which took place yesterday after nine long hours.

It was a hard-won battle for 62-year-old Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who said he had "great hope that this cabinet will function as a united working team to confront the great challenges facing us."

President Émile Lahoud formally approved the cabinet last night at end of a meeting with Siniora himself in the presence of the Speaker of the National Assembly Nabih Berri.

The cabinet consists of 24 ministers representing the country's main political parties, except for Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement. Of the 24 members, 10 ministers currently sit in parliament, 11 served in previous governments, and 7 come from Najib Mikati's outgoing cabinet.

President Lahoud's faction got three posts: Yaacoub Sarraf (Environment), Charles Rizk (Justice) and Elias el-Murr (Deputy Prime Minister and Defence). The Kornet Chehwan group took the Ministry of Social Affairs with Nayla Mouawad. The Lebanese Forces are back in government for a second time with Joseph Sarkis (Tourism). Kataeb's Pierre Gemayel gets Industry. Hizbollah joins the cabinet for the first time with Mohammad Fneih but also for the first time Shiite party Amal is not represented by anyone, whether in or out of parliament.

Siniora has refused to speak about UN Resolution 1559 which calls for the disarmament of Hizbollah, the only armed militia left in Lebanon, both during and after Syria's occupation.

The Prime Minister did say though that his government would do all in its power to maintain good relations with Syria.

"We are two close countries, like brothers, and have common interests and a shared past and future. Our relations are based on mutual respect and nothing can separate the peoples of Lebanon and Syria because in the final analysis both want to live side by side with the other. Whatever happens, geography cannot be changed," Siniora said.

The new Prime Minister told AsiaNews that he would go to Syria to remove the causes of the current cool relations and to end border problems.

He also defended the mediation done by the Arab League's General Secretary Amro Moussa.

Siniora mentioned his attempts to include Michel Aoun's movement into the cabinet.

"Although things did not work out, I am ready to cooperate with all the parties, including those not included in the cabinet," he said.

"I am a democrat and believe in freedom. I shall defend Aoun's position as if it were mine own. He has the right to express his opinion on any issue. We shall protect that right. I don't think power can be exercised without an opposition, which is necessary to keep things in check. I shall welcome criticism during cabinet sessions because they will be for the best," he added.

Many observers view the new government as a compromise between President Lahoud and Saad Hariri, who heads the largest parliamentary faction.

Souhalil Bouiji, secretary general to the cabinet, said the official swearing-in ceremony will take place this Friday, July 22.

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