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Lebanon's ousted pro-Syrian prime minister returns to post

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Lebanon's president reinstated Omar Karami as prime minister Thursday in a snub to the country's growing anti-Syrian movement, which forced Karami and his Cabinet to resign last week.

Karami's reappointment, mandated by law after a majority of the pro-Syrian Parliament voted for him the night before, threatened to generate further tensions in this volatile, ethnically divided Mediterranean country over Syria's dominating role.

In a bid to ease the fallout, Karami extended an olive branch to opposition lawmakers heading the anti-Syrian movement, calling on them to join the government until parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

"We cannot face the crisis without a Cabinet of national unity," Karami said at a news conference, referring to the street demonstrations that followed the assassination Feb. 14 of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. "If there is any procrastination in responding to this invitation, it means we're heading to destruction."

Opposition leaders rejected the offer, fearing that joining the government would mean surrendering to Syrian control. The opposition fears that manipulation of May's vote may prevent them from ending three decades of Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs.

Joining the government as it stands now would allow the pro-Syrian factions to sweep Hariri's assassination under the rug, said Ghenwa Jalloul, a parliamentary ally of Hariri's.

Jalloul said the opposition was demanding that Karami and President Emile Lahoud agree to an independent investigation into Hariri's murder and dismiss the heads of the pro-Syrian security agencies.

"We need clear answers," she said. "How can we go to the people and ask them to back us without it? What we see is that when you're good to your country, you get assassinated."

Hariri, a self-made billionaire who was the force behind Lebanon's reconstruction after the 1975-1990 civil war, was killed in a bombing near Beirut's trendy waterfront. Many Lebanese think the attack was the work of pro-Syrian agents, although the governments of Lebanon and Syria deny involvement.

The murder plunged Lebanon into political turmoil, spurring local and international pressure on Syria to remove its 15,000 troops and intelligence agents left over the civil war. The anti-Syrian protests have brought Christians, Druze and Muslims together in a rare display of cooperation. The Druze are a distinct Muslim sect.

Thursday's reappointment of Karami came two days after a massive pro-Syria demonstration in Beirut called by Hezbollah, Lebanon's Shiite Muslim militant movement, to counter the anti-Syrian protests. The rival demonstrations underscored the rifts in this society where Christians wield outsized political power compared with the larger Muslim population. Many here suspect that Syria will use Hezbollah as its proxy in Lebanon should it finally withdraw its forces.

The White House considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and was joined in that determination Thursday by the European Parliament, which urged European Union ministers to act against the group.

At Martyrs' Square, where anti-Syrian demonstrations have taken place almost daily for a month, protesters said Thursday that they were disappointed over Karami's return.

"It's almost like it killed our hope," said Nabil al Mughrabi, 68, a Druze housewife.

"It's like we've achieved nothing," said another demonstrator, Mahmoud Bahlawan, 17, a high school senior and Sunni Muslim. "But we're going to keep up the pressure until something changes."

Lebanese politicians agree on one key point that could be the starting point for compromise, said Rami Khouri, a syndicated columnist and editor at large for the Lebanese English-language newspaper Daily Star. Across the board, Lebanese support enacting the 1989 Arab-brokered Taif Accord, and its terms for the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

"With the appointment of Karami, they are thumbing their nose at the opposition, the Americans and French and all the people who've opposed the Lebanese government and Syrian presence in Lebanon," Khouri said. "But on another level, the individual doesn't really matter. What will matter are the policies that dominate this unity government.

"If they chart a course that satisfies everybody, that would bring significant change."

Lebanese officials say that nearly half of the Syrian troops are withdrawing to eastern Lebanon this week under a pullout plan agreed to Monday by Lahoud and Syrian President Bashar Assad.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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