Hundreds of angry protesters burned tyres and blocked roads across Lebanon on Tuesday after a Hezbollah-backed politician was named prime minister, shifting the balance of power in the country towards Syria and Iran.
The nomination of Najib Mikati is seen as a victory for Hezbollah, which is trying to fend off a UN-backed tribunal set up in 2005 to try the killers of statesman Rafik al-Hariri and which is expected to accuse members of the Shia group.
Sunni Muslims loyal to outgoing premier Saad al-Hariri, Rafik’s son who has Western and Saudi backing, staged a “day of rage” to protest the appointment of Sunni billionaire Mikati, a centrist lawmaker with ties to both Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Hezbollah’s enhanced political strength will set off alarm bells in Washington and across the region, especially in Israel which in 2006 fought a five-week war in a failed attempt to destroy the Iran-backed movement’s formidable military capacity.
Israeli officials have since threatened regularly to respond to Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets in Lebanon, upgraded with help from Syria and Iran.
Mikati, a telecoms tycoon who has portrayed himself as a consensus candidate, said he would start talks to form a government on Thursday and appealed to all Lebanese factions to overcome their differences.
“All Lebanese leaders should cooperate together to face the current challenges,” he said from the presidential palace after he accepted his nomination by President Michel Suleiman.
“I reiterate my position … that my hand is extended to all factions to take part and end division…through dialogue.”
Hezbollah and its allies quit Hariri’s unity government earlier this month, bringing it down after the failure of a Syrian-Saudi effort to bridge a rift over the tribunal.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah urged Mikati to form a “national partnership government”.
“We have supported the nomination of … Mikati and we call on him to form a national partnership government. The Lebanese have a chance to close ranks,” he told thousands of supporters.