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Lebanese leaders agree on unity government

Leaders of the ruling Sunni party and the Hezbollah-led opposition have agreed on a power-sharing deal and formed a cabinet after months of controversy, violence, and stalled elections.

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BEIRUT - Lebanon ended weeks of wrangling on Friday and formed a unity government in which Hezbollah and its allies hold effective veto power, as agreed under a deal that ended a paralyzing political conflict in the country.

The decisive say granted to the former opposition led by Hezbollah, an ally of Damascus, shows that Syria has succeeded in wrenching back some political leverage in Lebanon, where it was the main power broker until its troops left in 2005.

The birth of the government, the first under newly elected President Michel Suleiman, should close a long political crisis that had threatened to plunge Lebanon into a new civil war.

But it also marks the start of a challenging new era in which leaders must contain rising sectarian tensions, prepare for a parliamentary election next year and start talks on the fate of Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah's military wing.

A presidential decree announced the cabinet after Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, met Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni Muslim, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi'ite Muslim.

"This government has two main tasks: regaining confidence in the Lebanese political system... and securing the holding of a transparent parliamentary election," Siniora told reporters.

The new team has one Hezbollah minister in addition to 10 ministers from its Shi'ite, Druze and Christian allies.

The opposition was guaranteed 11 of the cabinet's 30 seats under a May deal to defuse a conflict that had sparked some of the worst fighting since the 1975-90 civil war. All major decisions require a two-thirds majority or 20 cabinet votes.

The Qatari-brokered May 21 agreement opened the way for Suleiman's election four days later, but factional squabbling over portfolios had held up the formation of a government.

The majority coalition chose 16 ministers. Suleiman picked the remaining three, including Interior Minister Ziad Baroud.

Siniora's close adviser Mohammad Chatah takes the finance portfolio. Hezbollah's Mohammad Fneish becomes labor minister and Fawzi Salloukh, of the Shi'ite Amal group, foreign minister.

The cabinet's main task will be to ease sectarian and political tensions to avert further violence, adopt an election law agreed in the Qatar talks and supervise next year's poll.

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"Finally!" a 21-year-old Beirut man, who gave his name only as Ahmed, said of the new cabinet. "Hopefully it will be a real national unity government and they won't waste time fighting at the table and will sort out the problems of the Lebanese."

The United States welcomed the formation of a cabinet but said it would not deal with cabinet members from Hezbollah.

"This cabinet does include members of Hezbollah, as did the last one. We will not deal with those members of the cabinet. But we look forward to working with the prime minister, as well as his new foreign minister," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana also hailed the formation of the new government, which he said marked a "key achievement."

"Important decisions need to be taken in the coming weeks and there is a lot of work to be done," Solana said in a statement, reiterating the EU's support to Siniora.

Suleiman is due in Paris for Sunday's launch of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union project, his first foreign trip as president. He is expected to hold talks there with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

Assad's presence at the summit, which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will also attend, marks French recognition of Syria's role in facilitating a compromise in Lebanon.

Damascus had given its blessing to the Doha deal, which effectively translated into political gains the military victory Hezbollah and its allies had won against their Western-backed foes in street fighting in Beirut and elsewhere earlier in May.

With the government in place, Suleiman is expected to call rival leaders for round-table talks on divisive issues, with the fate of Hezbollah's weapons foremost among them.

Hezbollah maintains a formidable guerrilla army that fought off Israeli forces in a 34-day war in 2006.

Its domestic detractors say Hezbollah has had no reason to keep its weapons since Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah and its allies argue that it needs its arsenal to deter and defend Lebanon against possible Israeli attack. 

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