BEIRUT -- Lebanon's president appointed staunchly pro-Syrian politician Omar Karami as prime minister yesterday, asking him to form the next government in a move that consolidates Syria's hold on Lebanese politics.
Karami replaces billionaire Rafik Hariri, who has had a long rivalry with President Emil Lahoud -- a close ally of Damascus -- and who announced a day earlier he would not continue as prime minister in the new government.
The shake-up came as Syria was under new pressure from the United Nations to end its decades-long domination of its neighbor Lebanon. In defiance of the UN Security Council, Lebanon's parliament last month extended Lahoud's soon-to-expire six-year term by another three years.
The issue has divided Lebanon's leadership, creating its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, and put the country and Syria -- which has 14,000 troops in Lebanon -- in direct confrontation with the United States and France at the world's highest body.
Hariri, who maintains wide international contacts, was seen as less dependent on Syria than many other politicians. Analysts said his departure cleared the field for a Lebanese government whose ministers are all loyal to Syria, helping Damascus face international pressure.
Lahoud named Karami after polling legislators yesterday, according to a presidential statement read by Lahoud's spokesman, Rafik Shalala. But the appointment was marred by a boycott by nearly a quarter of the Legislature -- lawmakers opposed to Syrian domination of their country. They refused to meet with the president yesterday morning for consultations, which are required by the constitution.
An informal poll of legislators indicated that Karami, who was prime minister in 1990-92, had the support of at least 71 of the parliament's 128 members.
Karami, a 70-year-old lawyer who was forced to resign in 1992 amid street riots during an economic upheaval, accepted the post and called for a government of national unity to face what he called internal and external challenges.
"I know the enormity of the external pressures against Lebanon and Syria, and I know the sensitive international situation and the crises the people are suffering from," he said. "But I am not overwhelmed or cowered by them."
He said he would soon meet with parliamentary blocs to form a Cabinet. His government will serve until new parliamentary elections in May.
Karami comes from a prominent political family from Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city. His father, Abdul-Hamid Karami, was a leader of the movement that led to Lebanon's independence from France in 1943.
He rose to political prominence after his brother, many-time Prime Minister Rashid Karami, was killed by a bomb planted under his seat on a military helicopter in 1987 during the civil war.
Karami is known for his staunch pro-Syrian views. Syrian troops are still deployed in Tripoli and the surrounding region of northern Lebanon. He is sure to face international pressure to reduce the Syrian presence.
But he also faces internal problems, including trying to heal the wounds from the bruising dispute over Lahoud's extension of his term without election. Lebanon also faces frequent power outages, labor agitation, a rising cost of living, and increasing fuel prices that are hurting an overburdened population. An attempt several months ago to raise gasoline prices led to riots that left six people dead.
"I know that governing at this stage is a sacrifice," Karami said. "I accepted it in order to do all I can to ease the crisis and put an end to the collapse and to lay the ground for salvation."
The UN Security Council passed a resolution last month calling on Syria to stop interfering in Lebanese politics and withdraw its army from Lebanon, and repeated the demands this week in a statement. Syrian officials and their allies in the Lebanese government have rejected the resolution as interference in two sovereign countries' bilateral relations and internal affairs.
The United States has urged Lebanon to choose a new government without reference to Syria.
"The selection of a Cabinet, and all matters affecting the Lebanese government, should be the result of a purely Lebanese process," a State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said Wednesday.
Hariri has been prime minister for 10 of the 14 years since the end of civil war. In an interview published yesterday in the newspaper As-Safir, Hariri said he had wanted to head a new government, but was faced with obstacles that he did not explain. He said his bloc would neither join the opposition nor support the new government.