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NEWSMAKER-Lebanese hope consensus premier can calm tensions

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sun, 7 Apr 2013 09:52 AM
Author: Reuters
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By Dominic Evans and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT, April 6 (Reuters) - Tammam Salam's father served six times as prime minister in the turbulent years leading up to Lebanon's civil war.

With his country threatened once again by sectarian rift and regional conflict, Salam the son was named prime minister on Saturday by Lebanese politicians hoping his soft-spoken calm may help to avert a fresh conflict in their fraught Mediterranean state.

"I am aware of the critical stage the country is facing," the 67-year-old consensus choice for premier said after winning an overwhelming parliamentary endorsement.

Salam pledged to bridge divisions between Lebanon's Sunni, Shi'ite and Christian leaders, exacerbated by conflict between mainly Sunni Muslim rebels and Alawite President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which for decades held sway in its smaller neighbour.

He said he will seek to shield Lebanon from the Syrian "tragedy", which has sent 400,000 refugees spilling over into a country of just 4 million, triggered street battles in the northern city of Tripoli and hit Lebanon's economy.

He faces the challenge of assembling a cabinet which satisfies both Lebanon's Saudi- and Western-backed March 14 coalition and the March 8 bloc led by Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah and its Shi'ite and Christian allies.

Salam is a Sunni Muslim - as all prime ministers must be under Lebanon's confessional distribution of power - and is close to March 14, which has strongly backed the revolt against Syrian's President Bashar al-Assad.

But his non-confrontational style and his family's previous differences with the powerful Hariri clan, which dominates March 14, may have helped to persuade the rival March 8 bloc to throw its support behind him.

"He is an absolute moderate," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said this week to explain why he was backing Salam for the post - a vital step which guaranteed the tall, balding and bespectacled politician majority support.

"He has never uttered a bad word about the resistance," Jumblatt added, referring to Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

OVERSHADOWED BY HARIRI

Unlike former prime minister Saad al-Hariri, whom he visited in Saudi Arabia on Thursday before winning the formal backing of March 14, Salam has not spoken out prominently against Assad - although he has taken positions against Damascus in the past.

In 1992 he pulled out of Lebanon's parliamentary election in protest at Syria's military presence in Lebanon, which only came to an end when Assad pulled out his troops in 2005.

Salam's mother, Tamima, is Syrian from a prominent Damascene family and his first act after being named prime minister was to visit the nonagenarian matriarch, whose husband was prime minister six times between 1952 and 1973.

Salam's grandfather was a deputy in the Ottoman parliament and campaigned against the French authorities who ruled Lebanon until independence.

The prestige and prominence of the Salam family was overshadowed by the ascendance of billionaire Sunni tycoon Rafiq al-Hariri, who also served as premier before his assassination with a huge car bomb on the Beirut seafront in 2005.

Tammam Salam was first elected to parliament in 1996, but lost his seat four years later after falling out with Hariri. He returned to parliament in 2009, this time in alliance with Hariri's son Saad, who became prime minister in turn.

Salam studied economics and business administration in Britain in the 1960s before returning to Lebanon, where he headed the Makassed charity foundation during part of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. (Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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