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Hezbollah Backs Karami for Premier as Lebanon Political Deadlock Deepens

The Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement and its allies may nominate Omar Karami to head Lebanon’s next government, after they toppled the coalition led by Saad Hariri last week.

Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim el-Moussawi said by text message today that Karami’s nomination was “likely.” Ali Hamdan, an adviser to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, confirmed that Karami is the probable candidate in a phone interview. President Michel Suleiman will begin talks with lawmakers on Jan. 24 to designate a new prime minister, after today announcing a one-week delay.

Suleiman said he postponed the consultation “after assessing the position of the various Lebanese parties, and in order to secure the national interest,” according to a statement from the presidential palace. The leaders of Syria, Turkey and Qatar are meeting in Damascus today seeking a solution to the crisis.

Hezbollah and its allies brought down Hariri’s government on Jan. 12 when they withdrew from his national unity coalition over a United Nations inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad Hariri’s father. The Shiite group has demanded that the probe be canceled, saying it is biased and instigated by the U.S. to target Hezbollah.

Unanimous Decision

The Shiite movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised speech yesterday that his group and its allies “unanimously” decided not to support Saad Hariri to stay on as prime minister. Hariri has backed the UN effort to identify his father’s killers, and his Future movement said it will re- nominate him for the premiership.

Lebanon’s BLOM Stock Index fell 0.4 percent, led by property developer Solidere SAL, the largest publicly traded company in Lebanon, which declined 1 percent.

Karami, 76, is a pro-Syrian politician from the northern city of Tripoli and has served as premier several times. Karami, a lawyer by profession, is the brother of Rashid Karami, a former premier who was killed in 1987 when a bomb blew up his helicopter, and the son of Abdul Hamid Karami, who was prime minister in 1945.

Omar Karami resigned in 2005 as prime minister amid an international outcry over the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, which many Lebanese blamed on Syria. Hariri and 22 others were killed by a roadside bomb in Beirut in February 2005, sparking protests by millions of Lebanese that led to the ouster of Syrian troops from the country after 29 years.

Shiite-Sunni Polarization

“The Lebanese have never been in such a situation before, what’s happening now is unprecedented,” Hamdan said.

Abdo Saad, the head of the independent Beirut Center for Research and Information, described the current political standoff as “the worst situation in Lebanon since the country gained independence” from France in 1943. Polarization between Shiite and Sunni Muslims “raises the specter of civil strife,” he said.

The UN prosecutor investigating the Hariri killing is due to file an indictment this week with the pre-trial judge. Media speculation that members of Hezbollah will be charged has stoked political tensions in Lebanon, increasing the risk of violence in a country that has been racked by civil war and sectarian strife for decades.

Beirut Clashes

When Hezbollah walked out of the government of Fouad Siniora in 2006, it marked the start of an 18-month political paralysis. That culminated in street fighting in May 2008, when at least 80 people were killed after Hezbollah and its allies seized control of west Beirut. The clashes were the worst since the end of a 15-year civil war in 1990.

Hezbollah and its backer Syria deny responsibility for Hariri’s death. Nasrallah said in a Nov. 11 speech that Hezbollah won’t allow its members to be detained and would “cut off the hand” of anyone who attempted to arrest them.

Hezbollah has accused witnesses to the UN tribunal of misleading the inquiry, and demanded their arrest. Nasrallah said yesterday Hezbollah would “not remain silent” about any government that protects the “false witnesses” or targets his group, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006.

The UN tribunal in 2009 released four pro-Syrian officials in Lebanon’s security services, citing a lack of evidence after some witnesses changed or retracted statements. They had been in detention for four years.

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, at mderhally@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Louis Meixler at lmeixler@bloomberg.net.

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