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Lebanon's new premier says election delay likely

Newly elected Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in Beirut April 7, 2013. Salam was na
Newly elected Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in Beirut April 7, 2013. Salam was na

By Dominic Evans and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's June election faces a possible delay, prime minister-designate Tammam Salam said, as he prepared to form a government which aims to resolve months of dispute over the vote and shield the country from war in neighboring Syria.

Salam, a moderate who won broad political support to become premier, said he would try to bring all of Lebanon's rival factions into a government whose main priority was paving the way for the parliamentary election.

But with most political blocs opposed to the existing electoral law - including the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and its Saudi- and Western-backed March 14 opponents - Salam said reaching agreement on a new system would take time.

"There is a possibility of a technical delay while a new electoral law is decided," Salam told Reuters in his Ottoman-style mansion in Beirut on Sunday, a day after President Michel Suleiman asked him to form a new government.

The alternative of extending the existing parliament's life by a year or two was constitutionally risky, said Salam, while the worst-case scenario of a political "vacuum" would be a step towards the catastrophic conflict underway in Syria and suffered by Lebanon in its own 1975-1990 civil war.

"We experimented with this in the past when politics turned into political battles outside the democratic institutions and we paid a very heavy price, as others are paying today," the 67-year-old former culture minister said.

Salam, from a prominent Sunni Muslim family, is close to the March 14 coalition of former prime minister Saad al-Hariri - despite tensions between the two political dynasties in previous elections - but his nomination also won the backing of the rival March 8 bloc which includes Hezbollah and its allies.

March 14 groups mainly Sunni and Christian parties which pushed, with U.S. and European support, for Syria to end nearly three decades of military presence in Lebanon in 2005.

Political tensions have risen sharply since the outbreak in 2011 of the Syrian uprising, which March 14 strongly supports while March 8 has backed President Bashar al-Assad. But the rival camps bridged their differences, perhaps briefly, to give Salam the backing of 124 out of parliament's 128 members.

Asked if he would try to form a government representing all of Lebanon's political factions, including Shi'ite Hezbollah, Salam said: "As long as everyone took part in (my) nomination, everyone should be involved in forming the government too."

SYRIAN DANGERS

Salam's elevation follows the resignation last month of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose two years in office were marked by efforts to contain sectarian rifts, street battles and economic fallout from the Syrian civil war.

Mikati tried to maintain a policy of "dissociation" from Syria's turmoil, knowing that any clear stance on the conflict would antagonize some among Lebanon's factions.

But he sometimes found himself at odds with own foreign minister, who vocally criticized the Arab League for suspending Syria and appeared reluctant to convey government protests over Syrian army cross-border shelling or air strikes.

Dissociation "was a good title, but it was not properly implemented and it witnessed some downfalls now and then", Salam said, adding that Lebanon needed to stand up more clearly for its sovereignty and promising to tighten border security.

That step would also aim to prevent fighters from Lebanon - both supporters of the rebels and of Assad - from crossing the border to join the fight, he said.

A Sunni Muslim, as all prime ministers must be under Lebanon's confessional distribution of power - Salam studied business administration in Britain after school in Beirut.

His guiding philosophy, he said, was "moderation, in a country which has been governed by moderation for many, many years, and has suffered from extremism in other times".

Salam's mother Tamima, now in her 90s, is from a prominent Damascus family while his later father Saeb served six times as Lebanese prime minister between 1952 and 1973. A black and white portrait of the elder Salam, a white rose in his suit lapel, looked down on his son as he spoke during the interview.

His grandfather was a parliamentary deputy in the last years of the Ottoman empire and campaigned against French colonial authorities who ruled Lebanon until independence in 1943.

"Historically we have lived in Lebanon in a very precarious situation ... affected by Arab and regional and international developments, and also internally by the different religious factions that form the country," he said.

"(Now) there is a minimum of stability in the country, a minimum of law and order. But it is still enough to preserve Lebanon and (for us) to exercise our democratic functions."

(Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by David Stamp)

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