Protests over pro-Iranian power grab in Lebanon

A candidate backed by the Hezbollah movement was asked to form a new Lebanese government yesterday, prompting a wave of street protests against the growing influence of the Iranian-backed group.

President Michel Sleiman appointed the billionaire tycoon Najib Mikati as Prime Minister-designate after he secured enough parliamentary votes to defeat the Western-backed Saad Hariri, who was prime minister until Hezbollah brought down his unity government two weeks ago.

Mr Mikati's appointment was widely viewed as a victory for the Shia Hezbollah movement, which has emerged as the most potent political and military force in the country from its roots as a narrow resistance group fighting Israel. But it threatened to plunge Lebanon into renewed sectarian violence amid Sunni Muslim fears that Hezbollah wants to turn Lebanon into a Shia Islamic state.

Mr Mikati immediately sought to portray himself as a moderate and unifying politician. "My hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, in order to build and not to destroy," he said. "This does not signal the victory of one camp over another."

But supporters of Mr Hariri took to the streets in a "day of rage" yesterday, with protests turning violent in the town of Tripoli. Sunni rioters burned tyres and erected barricades, chanting: "Sunni blood is boiling!"

"It is a day of anger against the interference of Iran and Syria," Mohammed Kabbar, a Tripoli lawmaker, told protesters. "Don't test our anger."

The protests were a vivid reminder of sectarian clashes that broke out in Beirut two years ago, costing dozens of lives. But Mr Hariri urged his supporters to display calm. "My call for you is a national call. You are angry but you are responsible people," he said.

Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, joined calls for calm yesterday by downplaying the movement's influence. "Hezbollah will not lead the next government," he said. "Najib Mikati is not a Hezbollah man."

Mr Mikati's appointment is likely to worry Western governments, who will nevertheless view Mr Mikati as a Hezbollah choice.

Washington, which backed Mr Hariri, said a Hezbollah-controlled government would be problematic, while Israel, which fought a war with Hezbollah four years ago, said that it was closely monitoring developments.

Hezbollah brought down Mr Hariri's government this month after the premier refused to end co-operation with a UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, the statesman Rafiq Hariri. The tribunal is expected to indict Hezbollah members.

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