Lebanon PM rejects Hezbollah-backed candidate

Lebanon's caretaker prime minister said Monday he won't take part in any government headed by a Hezbollah-backed candidate, raising the stakes in a crisis that many fear could descend into violence.

Saad Hariri made the announcement as President Michel Suleiman began two days of consultations with lawmakers over their choice of premier.

Lebanon will likely see lengthy negotiations to form a new government after Hezbollah toppled Hariri's Western-backed unity government on Jan. 12 over his refusal to renounce a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Many fear Hezbollah will react violently if its members are indicted, as is widely expected. Hezbollah, which gets support from Syria and Iran, is Lebanon's most powerful armed force.

Now, both sides are scrambling for enough support to form a government.

Hezbollah and its allies are believed to have chosen moderate politician and billionaire businessman Najib Mikati as their candidate. Mikati, who served briefly as premier in 2005, announced late Sunday that he is seeking the post as a candidate of "moderation and accord" in the talks Monday and Tuesday.

Asked whether he was the candidate for the Hezbollah-led bloc known as "March 8," Mikati said: "I consider myself to be a candidate of accord and moderation."

A statement issued by Hariri's office, however, said there is no "consensual candidate."

"There is a candidate named Saad Hariri, and another candidate for the March 8 forces, and the choice in this regard is clear and unambiguous," the statement said.

Hariri said his Future movement will not participate in any government headed by a Hezbollah-backed candidate.

Lawmaker Oqab Sakr said Mikati's candidacy was "a clear challenge to the will of the parliamentary and popular majority."

The support of at least 65 lawmakers is required to form a government in Lebanon's 128-seat Parliament. Hezbollah and its allies already claim 57 seats. Saad Hariri has 60.

Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect who heads an 11-member bloc in Parliament, said this week he was supporting Hezbollah and Syria.

He is believed to have secured for Hezbollah the votes of at least seven lawmakers from his bloc, which would bring the militant group only one seat short of majority to govern on its own.

The Hezbollah leader said on Sunday that the group and its allies will seek to form a new unity government with their rivals in Lebanon's Western-backed political bloc if the candidate they are backing is chosen to be prime minister.

A Harvard graduate, Mikati is seen as a relatively neutral figure who enjoys good relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad and also with the pro-Western Hariri, who himself is seeking to keep the post.

Mikati's candidacy brings Hezbollah and its allies closer to getting enough support to form a government on their own.

He is a founder of Mikati Communications Group, which includes Investcom, a leading Middle Eastern mobile phone company that has interests in Yemen, Syria and Cyprus.