Lebanese premier-designate says he has formed a Cabinet, ending 7 weeks of deadlock

Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati said Tuesday he had formed a Cabinet, ending seven weeks of attempts to set up a government and paving the way to parliamentary elections next month.

"This is a government that harbors no grudge against anyone, and it marks the beginning of building the future," Mikati told reporters after talks with President Emile Lahoud and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at the presidential palace.

The Cabinet is exceptionally small - only 14 ministers instead of the outgoing 30 - and none of its ministers will stand in the elections.

"It is a Cabinet of non-candidates" in the elections, Mikati said.

The Cabinet is not expected to govern for long.

"The task of this Cabinet is to hold parliamentary elections as soon as possible," Mikati said. The parliament's term is due to end May 31.

Mikati is the only minister in the new Cabinet who is currently a legislator. The 13 other ministers come from outside parliament, although four have previously served in Cabinet.

Newcomers to politics took two sensitive portfolios - interior and justice. Hassan Sabei, a retired General Security officer, becomes Interior Minister, who has to supervise the elections. And Judge Khaled Kabbani becomes Justice Minister.

Both ministers will have to deal with an international team mandated by the U.N. Security Council to investigate the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Sabei and Kabbani are both considered close to the Hariri family.

Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud and Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalife, both pro-Syrian holdovers from the outgoing Cabinet, retain their posts. Alain Tabourian, an outgoing state minister, becomes minister for post, telephone and telegram as well as youth and sports. Elias Murr, the president's son-in-law and an interior minister in 2000-2004, becomes deputy prime minister and defense minister.

Murr has been criticized in the past for using his powers as interior minister against his political opponents.

The opposition had accused Hammoud of trying to impede the U.N. investigation into Hariri's assassination - a charge he denied.

Ghassan Salameh, a former culture minister and U.N. adviser in Iraq, becomes minister of education and culture.

A moderate and a supporter of Syria, Mikati said that apart from the elections, his government's priorities would be to bolster national unity, strengthen relations with Syria and protect the resistance.

He was referring to U.N. Security Council demands that Lebanon disarm the militant Hezbollah group.

The anti-Syrian opposition has demanded that Lebanon's security chiefs be dismissed for alleged negligence in Hariri's assassination. Mikati said the Cabinet would discuss this issue.

The Cabinet is expected to meet Wednesday to draw up a policy statement that will be put to parliament when it seeks a vote of confidence.

Mikati was appointed to form a government on Friday. The first legislator to be asked to form a Cabinet, outgoing Prime Minister Omar Karami, gave up last week.

Karami's government resigned Feb. 28 in the face of mass demonstrations over Hariri's assassination. In March, he was asked to form a new Cabinet.

The opposition, which refused to join a Karami-led Cabinet, has been pushing for elections to be held before the parliament's mandate expires. It expects to win a majority in the elections.

HUSSEIN DAKROUB, Associated Press Writer

On the photo: Najib Mikati

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