* PM Salam aims to hold presidential polls on time
* Asks politicians to make concessions for nation's sake
* Political, sectarian divisions fuelled by Syria spillover
* Struggle over energy post delayed government for weeks
By Laila Bassam and Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Feb 15 Lebanon announced a new
government on Saturday, breaking a 10-month political deadlock
during which spillover violence from neighbouring Syria worsened
A caretaker government has run the country since former
Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned in March as parties aligned
with the Shi'ite Hezbollah movement and a Sunni-led rival bloc
pursued a power struggle exacerbated by their support for
opposing sides in Syria's almost three-year-old civil war.
"A government in the national interest was formed in a
spirit of inclusivity," new Prime Minister Tammam Salam declared
on live television.
He said he hoped the new government would allow Lebanon to
hold presidential elections before President Michel Suleiman's
mandate expires in May and finally conduct parliamentary polls
that were postponed last year due to the political impasse.
"I extend my hand to all the leaders and I am relying on
their wisdom to reach these goals and I call on all of them
together to make concessions in the interest of our national
project," he said.
Parliament designated the Sunni lawmaker as prime minister
in April 2013, but he had been unable to form a cabinet for
months due to rivalries between the Hezbollah-dominated March 8
bloc and the March 14 alliance, led by the Sunni Future Party.
Former Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, from the March 8 bloc,
becomes foreign minister. Former Health Minister Ali Hassan
Khalil, also from March 8, takes the finance portfolio. Nouhad
Machnouk, a March 14 legislator, was named interior minister.
Salam said his "national interest government" had a mandate
to fight mounting security problems, which he linked to Syria.
"We must also deal with our complicated economic and social
issues, the most important of which is the growing number of
refugees from our Syrian brothers and the burdens this has
placed on Lebanon," he said.
Sectarian violence has erupted sporadically in the past
year, particularly in the north, and car bombings targeting both
security and political targets have increased dramatically, with
Hezbollah-dominated areas being the most frequent target.
"We want this new government to open the doors for a complete
settlement and to get the country back on the train to
stability," Finance Minister Khalil told Reuters by telephone.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the formation of
the government as "an important first step" towards addressing
Lebanon's recent political uncertainty.
"Amidst growing terrorism and sectarian violence, we look to
the new cabinet, if approved by parliament, to address Lebanon's
urgent security, political and economic needs," Kerry added.
ENERGY WAS STUMBLING BLOCK
Salam had tried again to form a government last month, but
was thwarted by a row over who would hold the energy portfolio,
a ministry given extra weight by the discovery of potential gas
and oil reserves off Lebanon's Mediterranean coast.
The Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Hezbollah
ally, had insisted former Energy Minister Bassil keep his post.
The dispute was finally resolved with the appointment of Arthur
Nazarian, from the FPM-aligned Tashnag, a small Armenian party.
"The top priority of this government will be stability and
security, and also to improve people's daily life, and I think
one of the essential things that is important to all Lebanese is
the petroleum issue," Bassil told a news conference.
Salam had earlier made a deal with political parties that
requires all cabinet roles to be rotated among different
religious groups in each new government, so that no sect can
indefinitely dominate a particular ministry.
Lebanon, still struggling to recover from its own 1975-1990
civil war, has found its internal rifts aggravated by the
conflict in Syria, whose sectarian divisions mirror its own.
Hezbollah, a militant and political movement supported by
Shi'ite Iran, is one of the most powerful groups in Lebanon and
fought an inconclusive war with Israel in 2006. It has sent
fighters to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad, whose
minority Alawite sect is a Shi'ite offshoot.
The Future party supports the anti-Assad uprising led
largely by the Syria's Sunni majority.
Syria's war has stoked a region-wide struggle for influence
involving Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled states against Iran
and its Shi'ite allies in Lebanon and Iraq.
The Lebanese cabinet deal could signal that those powers
want to stem the sectarian violence convulsing Syria and
rippling across Lebanon, Iraq and other countries.
In a televised speech on Friday, Future party head Saad
Hariri, a former prime minister who threw his weight behind a
unity government with March 8 last month, vowed to tackle
sectarian radicalism within his own Sunni sect.
He also called on Hezbollah to pull its forces out Syria to
prevent a "sectarian holocaust" in Lebanon.