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Aoun says Lebanon government row 'not easy', signals differences with Hezbollah

Aoun says Lebanon government row 'not easy', signals differences with Hezbollah
FILE PHOTO: Saad al-Hariri talks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun in downtown Beirut, Lebanon November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo   -   Copyright  Mohamed Azakir(Reuters)
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BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Wednesday the differences blocking a deal over a new national unity government were “not easy” and signalled he was at odds with his ally Hezbollah over the last outstanding issue.

Five months since an election, prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri has been unable to clinch a deal on the new government because of the competing demands of rival parties for cabinet seats that are parcelled out along sectarian lines.

A deal seemed close on Monday when a row over Christian representation was settled with the anti-Hezbollah Christian Lebanese Forces ceding ground to Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement, which is allied to Shi’ite Hezbollah.

But Hezbollah, a powerful armed group backed by Iran, is pressing its demand for one of its Sunni allies to be given a portfolio in the 30-seat cabinet to reflect gains they made in the May 6 parliamentary election.

Aoun, in a televised interview, said obstacles “are being created that are not proper and not justified”.

Addressing the demand of the Hezbollah-backed Sunnis, he said: “This matter caused the delay, and this delay is a type of political tactic that is hurting our big strategy.”

Aoun said the Hezbollah-backed Sunnis amounted to “individuals, not a bloc” and had gathered together “recently” to make their demand for a cabinet post.

Hariri, Lebanon’s main Sunni leader, has ruled out ceding one of his cabinet seats to the Hezbollah-allied Sunnis.

Another possible way out of the problem would be for Aoun to name one of the Hezbollah allies among a group of ministers allocated to him. But Aoun gave no indication he was willing to do so in the interview marking the second anniversary of his becoming president – a post reserved for a Maronite Christian.

Aoun said he wanted a strong prime minister, and not to weaken Hariri.

Western-backed Hariri lost more than a third of his seats in the parliamentary election, many of them to the Hezbollah allies.

Lebanon is dire need of a government able to make economic reforms that are seen as more pressing than ever. The country is wrestling with the world’s third largest public debt as a proportion of the economy and stagnant growth.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam; editing by David Stamp)

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