Shiite leader Berri re-elected as parliament speaker

Shiite leader Nabih Berri has been re-elected as parliament speaker for a seventeenth straight year, less than a month after a close general election saw Berri and his allies in a Hezbollah-led coalition defeated for the second time in four years.


AFP - Shiite leader Nabih Berri was re-elected to a fifth consecutive term as parliament speaker on Thursday, consolidating his position as one of Lebanon's most influential politicians.

He was elected by 90 out of the 128-member parliament to enter his 17th straight year as speaker. Twenty-eight legislators cast blank ballots.

"Those who cast blank ballots today I am sure will re-elect me in four years," a confident Berri said in his acceptance speech as celebratory gunfire broke out across Beirut.

His re-election comes less than a month after a tightly contested general election saw Berri and his allies in a Hezbollah-led coalition backed by Iran defeated for the second time in four years by an alliance supported by the West and Saudi Arabia.

Berri, who was accused of paralysing parliament for 18 months after five Shiite ministers resigned in November 2006, pledged on Thursday to promote reforms and urged rival Lebanese factions to form a national unity government.

He said although the previous parliament and government had largely been paralysed by the long-running crisis, it had nonetheless managed to move the conflict from the streets to the negotiating table.

"We will work to ensure that this situation is not repeated in the new parliament," he told MPs.

A former pro-Syrian militia chief who has held a pivotal role in post-civil war Lebanon, the 71-year-old Berri was first elected in 1992, and then again in 1996 and 2000 during the deployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon.

After the Syrian troop withdrawal in 2005 in the aftermath of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Berri held on to his position as head of Lebanon's assembly.

A lawyer by training, the veteran politician is regarded in Lebanon's political circles as a "wily fox" who always bounces back from adversity.

His Amal movement maintains a rock-solid alliance with the rival Shiite group Hezbollah although the two have locked horns in the past.

Berri's rise to power has mirrored the Shiite community's increasing prominence in a country where it had long been the poorest in terms of both material wealth and political weight.

Born in Sierra Leone into a family that had emigrated from Lebanon's impoverished south, Berri became a key militia leader during the 1975-1990 civil war.

He was named minister several times between 1984 and 1992, when he was elected MP and parliament speaker -- the highest post for a Shiite in the country's sectarian political system.

Berri has managed to give growing Shiite power a moderate image compared to the perceived radicalism of Hezbollah, which has faced ever growing UN calls to disarm since its war with Israel in summer 2006.

He first rose to prominence in 1980 by taking over the leadership of his Amal faction two years after the mysterious disappearance in Libya of its founder, Imam Musa Sadr.

Berri then set about making himself an indispensable ally to Syria through the twists and turns of its long intervention in Lebanon's civil war.

In 1984, he led his militiamen in an uprising against the US- and Israeli-backed regime of president Amin Gemayel and later helped crush Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's supporters in the bloody "war of the camps."

But in 1988, his militia fought a deadly power struggle with Hezbollah which took control of almost all the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut and swathes of Shiite-dominated southern Lebanon.

Two years later in the final year of the civil war, Berri helped oust the anti-Damascus interim government of Michel Aoun, forcing the Christian leader into 15 years of exile.

Ironically, Berri and Aoun today are part of the same alliance

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