Saad al-Hariri, son of slain former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, on Sunday led a meeting late of his anti-Syrian coalition, the Future Movement, which agreed to back Berri for a new four-year term.

 

"After consultations with allied and friendly blocs, the Future parliamentary bloc announces that it members have decided to elect Nabih Berri as parliament speaker after he has promised to forge ahead with a reform programme .... and enable the new government to confront security, political, economic and social challenges in Lebanon," the coalition said in a statement issued after the meeting held at Saad's residence.

 

The 128-member parliament is to hold its first session on Tuesday to elect a speaker and get down to the business of nominating a premier who will form a Cabinet.

 

The anti-Syrian opposition groups scored major victories in the four-stage elections that ended on 19 June, wins that guaranteed them a majority in parliament and boosted their hopes of ending Damascus' hold on the legislature.

 

Jumblatt backing

 

Berri, who leads the pro-Syrian Shia Muslim Amal movement, also enjoys the public backing of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is part of the anti-Syrian coalition. Jumblatt leads a parliamentary bloc of 16 legislators.

 

Jumblatt heads a parliamentary
bloc of 16 legislators

Berri has served as parliament speaker since 1992, during which he was a close supporter of Syria and one of the enforcers of its policy in the Lebanese legislature.

 

The speakership of parliament, one of the top three government posts, is alloted to Shias. It is the highest post the ethnic group can have in government. Sunnis get the premiership and Maronite Catholics get the presidency in Lebanon's power-sharing structure.

 

Old and new lawmakers in the anti-Syrian coalition were divided over whether to back Berri for another term.

 

Counter-argument

 

Some Christian members of the anti-Syrian coalition argued that he was enforcing Syria's policy in Lebanon.

 

Gibran Tueni, general manager of the leading An-Nahar daily who was elected on Saad al-Hariri's ticket for Beirut's Christian Greek Orthodox seat in parliament, said in a television interview on Sunday he would not vote for Berri.

 

Tueni, a harsh critic of Syria's role in Lebanon, said he hoped there would have been another candidate to the speakership post.

 

Legislator Hussein Husseini, a former parliament speaker, withdrew his candidacy to the speakership post and urged other lawmakers opposed to Berri's re-election to cast a blank ballot during Tuesday's vote.

 

Berri's expected re-election comes as the anti-Syrian alliance stepped up calls for President Emile Lahoud to step down, blaming him for the killings of Rafiq al-Hariri  and two anti-Syrian figures.

 

Lahoud, Damascus' strongest supporter in Lebanon, has condemned the killings and vowed to stay in office until the end of his extended term in 2007.