Lebanon's real work begins

Lebanon formed a new independent government Tuesday, the first to include members of militant Hizbullah.

After weeks of protracted wrangling, Lebanon has formed its first government free from foreign interference in almost three decades, but the challenges ahead are formidable. Among them:

• Forging balanced ties with neighboring Syria, Lebanon's former master.

• Containing the fragile security environment following a spate of bomb attacks against prominent Lebanese.

• Implementing long-awaited political and economic reforms.

• Handling international calls for the disarming of the militant Hizbullah group.

• Improving the moribund economy.

For many Lebanese, the new government is supposed to embody the demands for change aired earlier in the year during the "Independence Intifada," the series of mass demonstrations following the assassination in February of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that led to Syria's disengagement from Lebanon in April.

"There's an unspoken expectation among a lot of Lebanese that what they did over the last six months ... was a significant qualitative shift in both people's participation in the political process and in their expectations of their government," says Rami Khouri, editor-at-large for Lebanon's English-language Daily Star newspaper.

The new 24-seat government is headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who served as finance minister in Mr. Hariri's governments. It took a month to assemble a cabinet lineup that was acceptable to the main power blocs in parliament. Two thirds of the cabinet are drawn from the former opposition coalition headed by Saad Hariri, son and political heir of Rafik Hariri, and Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze community. The remaining third comprises allies of the pro- Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, as well as members of the Shiite bloc that includes Hizbullah and the Amal Movement.

An imminent addition to Lebanon's newly independent political scene is Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces militia during the 1975-1990 war, who is set to be released this weekend after 11 years in prison.

Mr. Geagea, who opposed Syria's hegemony over Lebanon, was the only ex- warlord to be jailed for his alleged wartime crimes. He was granted amnesty on Monday in a parliamentary vote and plans to reenter politics following a period of convalescence in Europe.

The new government is the first in which a member of Hizbullah has participated, a move that reflects the group's broad support among Lebanese Shiites.

Lebanon faces international pressure to disarm Hizbullah and militant Palestinian groups in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559.

On Monday, UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed Larsen recommended that Hizbullah be "molded into the Lebanese Army and thereby into the government apparatus."

"Remaining as a militia when they are a party in government may look a bit odd," he said during a briefing of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels.

But Hizbullah says that political participation will help deflect international demands to disband its military wing.

Still, its inclusion could be a complicating factor for Beirut's diplomatic relations with Washington. The US classifies Hizbullah as a terrorist organization.

The State Department has said Washington will have no dealings with Hizbullah's Mohammed Fneish, the energy and water minister.

It is unlikely that the debate over disarming Hizbullah will be concluded soon, analysts say. Indeed, of more pressing concern for Siniora is how to end the border dispute with Syria and define a new equitable relationship with Damascus.

Citing security concerns, Syria has tightened its two main border crossings with Lebanon, barring goods and trucks from entering for more than two weeks.

Last week, nine Lebanese fishermen were detained by the Syrian authorities for entering Syrian territorial waters, even though it has been common practice to fish in each others' waters.

Furthermore, Damascus is demanding compensation for the killing of 36 Syrian laborers and wounding of 250 others during the surge of anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon following Hariri's murder.

Syrian officials deny there is any malevolence at play, but many Lebanese and analysts are unconvinced.

"I think it's clear now that there are some bad intentions from Damascus, that they want to use some economic measures against Lebanon," says Reinoud Leenders, a Beirut-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.

But, he adds, "I suspect that this is a short-term problem. Syria cannot afford to be seen causing bankruptcies in Lebanon. The United States will not tolerate that."

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