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Amid Syrian tensions, Lebanon elects new prime minister

Lebanon's new Prime Minister Tammam Salam, pledged to protect his country from neighbor Syria's civil war. Salam may also struggle to unite politically divided Lebanon. 

By Bassem MroueAssociated Press / April 6, 2013

Lebanese Prime Minister designate Tammam Salam gestures upon his arrival to the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday. Following two days of consultations, President Michel Suleiman asked legislator and former Minister of Culture Tammam Salam to form the new Cabinet after 124 of the 128-member parliament chose him for the job.

Hassan Ammar/AP

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Beirut

A prominent Lebanese politician named prime minister on Saturday after receiving vast support from parliament said he will work to end divisions in Lebanon and prevent the civil war in Syria from spilling over into the country.

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Following two days of consultations, President Michel Suleiman asked Tammam Salam to form a new Cabinet. The 68-year-old Beirut legislator and former culture minister was chosen for the job by 124 members of the 128-seat parliament.

Salam faces the challenge of holding Lebanon together amid rising sectarian tensions resulting from the civil war next door in Syria. The country's two largest political blocs support opposite sides the fight between Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and rebel fighters trying to oust him.

"I start from the necessity of taking Lebanon out of divisions and political tensions that were reflected in the security situation," Salam said in his first public statement after being chosen.

He added that his job also will be to prevent threats from the "neighboring catastrophic situation." Salam was trying to allay the fear in Lebanon that Syria's two-year civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people, will spread to Lebanon.

Salam said he would do his best to form a "national interest government," a process that could take him a long time because of the sharp divisions among Lebanese politicians as a result of the Syrian crisis. He did not elaborate on the type of Cabinet.

Outgoing Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned last month over a political deadlock between Lebanon's two main political camps and infighting in his government. Mikati, who was prime minister since June 2011, headed a government that was dominated by the militant Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group and its allies.

His abrupt departure plunged the nation into uncertainty amid heightened sectarian clashes related to Syria's civil war.

Mikati stepped down to protest the parliament's inability to agree on a law to govern elections set for later this year, as well as the refusal by Hezbollah and its allies in the cabinet to extend the tenure of the country's police chief.

"I start from the point of uniting national visions and to quickly reach an agreement on a new elections law that gives justice of representation," Salam said.

Although leaning toward the Western-backed anti-Hezbollah coalition, Salam, who is the son of the late former Prime Minister Saeb Salam, is seen as a consensus figure. Salam studied in Britain and has degrees in economics and business administration.

He was first elected to parliament for four years in 1996. He became minister of culture in 2008 under then prime minister Fuad Saniora. He was elected to parliament for the second time in 2009 when he ran for a seat in Beirut and joined a Western-backed coalition led by former prime minister, Saad Harir.

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