Billionaire Lawmaker May Be Lebanon's Next Premier

By Zeina Karam | January 24, 2011 | 5:59 AM EST

In this Monday, April 18, 2005 file photo, Lebanese lawmaker Nagib Mikati arrives at the Parliament in Beirut, Lebanon. Mikati, a billionaire businessman with close relations to Syria is emerging as a candidate favored by Hezbollah to head Lebanon's next government. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Tawil, File)

Beirut (AP) - A moderate politician and billionaire businessman with close ties to Syria emerged Monday as a candidate favored by Hezbollah to head Lebanon's next government.

Lawmaker Nagib Mikati, who served briefly as premier in 2005, announced he is seeking the post as a candidate of "moderation and accord" in formal talks starting Monday to choose a new prime minister.

Lebanon is in the midst of a political crisis nearly two weeks after the Shiite militant group Hezbollah brought down the country's unity government, headed by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Hezbollah wanted Hariri to renounce a U.N. tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, prominent Sunni businessman and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Many fear Hezbollah will react violently if its members are indicted, as is widely expected.

Ministers from the Syria- and Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies walked out of the government, forcing its collapse, after Hariri refused to disown the court which Hezbollah says lacks credibility and is allegedly a U.S. and Israeli conspiracy.

Now, both sides are scrambling for enough support to form a government.

Mikati, a Harvard graduate, is seen as a relatively neutral figure who enjoys good relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad and also with the pro-Western Hariri, who himself is seeking to keep the post.

Mikati's candidacy brings Hezbollah and its allies closer to getting enough support to form a government on their own.

He is a founder of Mikati Communications Group, which includes Investcom, a leading Middle Eastern mobile phone company that has interests in Yemen, Syria and Cyprus.

Asked whether he was the opposition's candidate, Mikati said: "I consider myself to be a candidate of accord and moderation."

Lawmakers from Hariri's bloc, however, said they considered Mikati to be Hezbollah's candidate and would still vote for Hariri in Monday's consultations with the president.

Lawmaker Oqab Sakr said Mikati's candidacy was "a clear challenge to the will of the parliamentary and popular majority."

The support of at least 65 lawmakers is required to form a government in Lebanon's 128-seat Parliament. Hezbollah and its allies already claim 57 seats. Saad Hariri has 60.

Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect who heads an 11-member bloc in Parliament, said this week he was supporting Hezbollah and Syria. He is believed to have secured for Hezbollah the votes of at least seven lawmakers from his bloc, which would bring the militant group only one seat short of majority to govern on its own.

The Hezbollah leader said on Sunday that the group and its allies will seek to form a new unity government with their rivals in Lebanon's Western-backed political bloc if the candidate they are backing is chosen to be prime minister.