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Lebanese cabinet wins confidence vote

The new cabinet formed by Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora a month ago has won a vote of confidence in parliament, after a drawn-out power-sharing struggle that had paralysed the government for months.

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Lebanon's new national unity government won a vote of confidence in parliament on Tuesday following stormy debates among rival lawmakers on the thorny issue of Hezbollah weapons.

The vote will allow the 30-member cabinet -- which was formed by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora a month ago under a May power-sharing accord that ended a dangerous political crisis -- to finally start work.

"One hundred MPs have given their confidence to the cabinet, five voted against and two abstained," parliament speaker Nabih Berri announced to the assembly, which currently has 127 MPs.

MPs from rival factions have locked horns in sharp exchanges over the arsenal of the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah, which insists it has the right to resist Israel.

"Despite some of the sharp criticisms expressed by some of the MPs... we are determined to turn over a new page in our relations," Siniora said in an address before the vote.

The confidence motion follows the government's drafting of a policy statement which also insists on "the right of Lebanon, its people, its army and its resistance to liberate its land."

The ruling majority in parliament, backed by the West and most Sunni-led Arab states, nevertheless insists on the Shiite militia's disarmament, something vehemently rejected by Hezbollah and its political allies.

It is the first government to be formed after the crisis between rival factions that degenerated into violence that left 65 dead in May, taking the country to the brink of a new civil war.

"The dialogue of the deaf ends with blind confidence," said the headline in the Al-Balad newspaper.

Controversy over Hezbollah's weapons intensified after its guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid in July 2006 that sparked a 34-day war that devastated Lebanon.

It boiled over again when Hezbollah led an armed takeover of large swathes of predominantly Sunni west Beirut during the May unrest, the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The Syrian-backed Hezbollah-led opposition, with 11 ministers, has the power of veto in the new cabinet under the May accord between the rival factions that allowed MPs to elect a new president after a six-month vacuum.

While the parliament has 128 seats, it has had only 127 sitting members since majority MP Antoine Ghanem was assassinated in a car bombing in October.

The government's policy statement says the people of Lebanon have to right to reclaim "Israeli-occupied" land including the Shebaa Farms and the divided border village of Ghajar.

Israel says the government gave in to Hezbollah by allowing it to use armed force against the Jewish state, although the ruling majority wants decisions over war or peace to be restricted to the state.

"Raising the question of the resistance's arms is no longer justified," Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad told the assembly on Monday. "Our national duty dictates the continuation of the resistance and the prevention of any attempt to weaken it."

In the two years since the 2006 war, Israel has repeatedly accused Hezbollah of rearming with rockets and other sophisticated weapons smuggled into Lebanon from Syria.

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak said during wargames on the Israeli-occuped Golan Heights on Tuesday that the UN resolution which ended the 34-day war "failed to fulfill its goals."

"There has been a very significant reinforcement of Hezbollah in recent years, and we are examining the possibility that the balance of power has shifted with the introduction of sophisticated weapons from Syria," he said.
  

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