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Lebanon's Hariri, Hezbollah form new government

Five months after a Western-backed coalition narrowly beat the Hezbollah-led opposition in in Lebanon's June elections, the two sides reached a deal Monday night.

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Hariri said that his government would focus on tackling the economy, administrative reform, and implementing a long-standing project to privatize some state utilities.

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Although the 15-10-5 allocation of cabinet seats was agreed upon shortly after the June election, the process became mired in arguments about who would head the various portfolios.

Lebanon's domestic disputes often reflect the broader power struggles between regional rivals that back competing factions here. But the wrangling over the distribution of cabinet portfolios this time appears to have been a homegrown affair. The deadlock was finally broken last week, when Syria and Saudi Arabia leaned on their respective Lebanese allies.

Next step: Defining Hezbollah 'resistance'

The next stage is the drawing up of a government policy statement. The key element of the statement will be the status of the "resistance" – Hezbollah's military wing, whose activities have landed the group on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations. The previous national unity government granted legitimacy to the "resistance" to seek the liberation of remaining Lebanese territory under Israeli occupation.

"The drafting of the ministerial statement will not be a problem at all, on the grounds that in parallel to Lebanon's commitment to Resolution 1701 [which ended the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006], it is the right of the people, Army, and the resistance to restore land by all means available," Suleiman was quoted as saying in Lebanese newspapers Tuesday, echoing the phrase contained in the previous government's policy statement.

The new government is expected to reaffirm that clause, although it is certain to raise reservations from ministers who oppose Hezbollah's armed status, especially those drawn from some Christian parties, such as the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange.

Still, there is a consensus among most political leaders that the fate of Hezbollah's arms is the most divisive issue facing the country and requires time and stable conditions to reach a compromise. Suleiman has said he intends to reconvene the national dialogue sessions, a round table forum established in 2006 grouping Lebanon's top leaders to resolve outstanding issues. Many Lebanese are fearful of a repeat of the mini-civil war that erupted in May 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies briefly overran Sunni-populated areas of Beirut in response to a decision by the government to clamp down on Hezbollah's internal communications network.

"The major hurdles in the government have been overcome, and the issue of Hezbollah's arms will be addressed in the national dialogue," says Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "We should experience a modicum of stability for a while, but do not expect any earth-shattering changes from the government."

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