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New Lebanese prez prepares to form Govt

Lebanon's newly elected president Michel Sleiman prepares to launch consultations on forming a national unity Govt as he begins his first full day in office.

world Updated: May 26, 2008 15:56 IST

Lebanon's newly elected president Michel Sleiman prepared to launch consultations on forming a national unity government on Monday as he began his first full day in office.

Sleiman, 59, was greeted with a 21-gun salute as he took up residence in the Baabda presidential palace, which had been left vacant during six months of political crisis that left Lebanon without a head of state and drove it to the brink of renewed civil war.

After surveying the republican guard and listening to the national anthem, a smiling Sleiman took his seat in the presidential chair.

The national flag, emblazoned with the cedar emblem, was also raised over the presidential palace in the outskirts of Beirut.

Sleiman, who was commander-in-chief of the armed forces, appealed for unity and national dialogue in his inaugural speech on Sunday which was endorsed by Lebanese parties and the international community.

"Let us unite... and work towards a solid reconciliation," Sleiman said. "We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it hand-in-hand."

Lebanese newspapers generally welcomed his speech saying it was a roadmap to reconciling the Western-backed parliamentary majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition, whose standoff degenerated into sectarian violence earlier this month.

"Sleiman sought repeatedly in his speech to prove that balance is the word that will define his mandate," the pro-government daily An-Nahar said.

But some opposition papers appeared less impressed with Sleiman's speech saying it was aimed at pleasing everyone without broaching key issues.

"His speech can be interpreted in many ways," the As-Safir daily said. "It catered to everyone and either side could have well believed that it had penned the speech."

Sleiman's main challenge this week will be to form the promised government of national unity which will give the opposition veto power.

It will replace the rump Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora which six pro-Syrian ministers quit in November 2006 sparking 18 months of crisis and deadlock. Siniora resigned on Sunday and is now heading a caretaker administration.

The new government was one of the key planks of the deal which the government and the opposition reached in Qatar last week to end the crisis.

According to the agreement, the parliamentary majority will have 16 of the 30 cabinet seats against 11 for the opposition. The remaining three ministers will be appointed by Sleiman.

The majority was expected to hold consultations on Monday on who to nominate for the premiership -- either Siniora or its parliamentary leader Saad Hariri.

With Sleiman's election hailed as the start of a new era, nations which had backed opposing sides in Lebanon's political standoff seemed united in wishing him well in his mission.

US President George W Bush said he looked forward to "an era of political reconciliation" in Lebanon.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose country provided the main foreign backing to the the opposition alongside Iran, telephoned Sleiman to congratulate him and promised that Damascus was "at Lebanon's side," according to a report on Lebanese television.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also welcomed the election and met Sleiman late Sunday.

"All countries in the region, be they Arab or Islamic, are overwhelmed with joy and pride at this glorious and blessed agreement," Mottaki said.

The deal struck in Doha is widely seen as a setback for US policy in the Middle East which had sought to isolate Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group which led the opposition but is blacklisted as terrorist organisation by Washington.