BEIRUT, Lebanon – The Lebanese prime minister who was forced to resign by a wave of popular opposition was returned to his post Thursday, riding a counterwave of this week's huge pro-Syrian demonstrations.
Omar Karami's (search) reappointment, which ensures Damascus' continued dominance in Lebanon's politics, is a slap to the opposition and forces it to evaluate how to recoup the momentum that had forced his Feb. 28 resignation.
"Reappointing Karami to form a new government is the peak of political insolence," said Gibran Tueni (search), a member of the Lebanese opposition and general manager of the leading An-Nahar daily newspaper. He said such a move was to be expected from this "useless, bankrupt, laughable government that is entirely subject to Syrian tutelage."
Karami rejected suggestions his reappointment by President Emile Lahoud (search) was inspired by Syria, saying his supporters had the majority in parliament and with the people, a reference to the hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian supporters who participated in a Hezbollah-organized rally Tuesday.
"It was a massive demonstration that asserted our legitimacy in the Lebanese street," Karami told a news conference after his reappointment was announced.
Both Karami and Lahoud are staunchly pro-Syrian.
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli said "the immediate challenge for the new government of Lebanon, and what I think the international community will be looking for, is that it responds to the aspirations of the Lebanese people for freedom and for sovereignty, untrammeled by foreign forces."
Another anti-Syrian demonstration was planned for Monday, marking one month since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which the opposition has blamed on the Lebanese government and its Syrian backers. Both deny involvement.
Karami's reinstatement was considered an affront to many who had participated in the demonstrations that led to his resignation.
"This shows how little respect they [authorities] have for the Lebanese people," said Salma Saadeh, a 23-year-old student.
Syria is keen to keep its hold on Lebanese decision-making as it pulls its forces back to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley and negotiates with the Beirut government on a complete troop withdrawal at a later date. Lebanese officials have said the first phase of the pullback, including of Syrian intelligence, would be completed by March 23. Lebanon's defense minister said "thousands" of the 14,000 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon will return to Syria and the others will reposition in the Bekaa Valley for an undetermined time.
In the last two days, troops have left most of their positions in the northern port of Tripoli and two hilltop positions above that city, filling trucks with supplies and towing weapons behind them in long convoys driving eastward. More empty trucks and buses arrived in central Lebanon Thursday, apparently to pick up supplies and soldiers.
Lebanon's opposition had long rejected Syria's role in their country, and the outcry intensified following Hariri's assassination. Tens of thousands of Lebanese protested in the streets, and the international community, which had already called for Syria's ouster in a U.N. resolution last September, strongly repeated its demands.
The opposition has also called for the firing of Lebanon's top security chiefs, accusing them of negligence, and demanded an independent inquiry into Hariri's death.
Karami said his new government will oversee the investigation into Hariri's death to find the culprits and "hand down the punishment they deserve."
Lahoud's decision to reappoint Karami came after 71 of the 78 legislators he consulted with Wednesday advised him to bring back the premier. The opposition, with 43 members on the 128-person legislature, did not nominate an alternate candidate.
Karami, who had continued to lead a caretaker government, immediately called for a national unity government and invited the opposition to join. He will begin consultations next week on forming a Cabinet.
"The difficulties we all know cannot be confronted without a government of national unity and salvation," he said. "We will extend our hand and wait for the other side."
The opposition rejected Karami even before his reinstatement was official. They have demanded a neutral government, complaining the national unity proposal was a trap to bring opposition members into the Cabinet without giving them a say in policy.