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Lebanon's anti-Syria leaders reconcile

BEIRUT -- Two senior anti-Syrian politicians have patched up their differences and agreed to work together to form the first government free of Syrian domination in three decades.

The reconciliation late Tuesday between Saad Hariri, son of slain former Premier Rafik Hariri, and Michel Aoun, a former military commander, is certain to consolidate the anti-Syrian camp's hold on Parliament as it tries to form a national unity government, a process scheduled to begin today with consultations on naming a premier.

Hariri and Aoun parted amid bitter accusations during the staggered May 29-June 19 parliamentary elections in which the anti-Syrian opposition won a majority, ending Damascus's control of the legislature.

Saad Hariri and his allies hold a majority of 72 seats in the 128-member legislature. Joining hands with Aoun, who along with allies have 21 seats, would give the anti-Syrian groups massive powers as they seek to end the remaining vestiges of Syrian control.

Aoun has campaigned on an anticorruption ticket and has vowed to be in the opposition in the new parliament. Hariri has campaigned to dismantle the so-called joint Lebanese-Syrian intelligence apparatus that the anti-Syrian groups blame for the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

The two, however, differed over efforts to force President Emile Lahoud, a staunch pro-Syrian, to step down. Hariri and his allies have called on the president to resign after the death of two anti-Syrian activists in car bombs this month. Aoun has refused to hold the president responsible.

Aoun said after the meeting with Hariri that he had agreed ''in principle" to take part in the new government, noting a change in policy by Hariri.

Asked after their meeting whether the new government would be a ''national unity" one, Hariri replied: ''I think it is more than that because people are fed up with slogans. They want a government of deeds and actions."

The Hariri-Aoun reconciliation came a day after Hariri and other anti-Syrian groups went along with pro-Syrian Shi'ite Muslim factions to reelect Nabih Berri to the post of Parliament speaker. Hariri had backed Berri, a staunch pro-Syrian, while Aoun had cast a blank vote.

Selecting a prime minister and forming a new government could prove to be more difficult than picking a parliament speaker. For most of the 30 years, Syria all but dictated the government's makeup.

Following Rafik Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon under mounting international pressure in April. Syria has denied any involvement in the assassination.

Lahoud will start polling lawmakers on their choice of prime minister today, and he is expected to try to ensure he has influence in the Cabinet. Likely prime ministers include former finance minister Fuad Saniora, former justice minister Bahij Tabbara, and the current caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a pro-Syrian who is seen as a compromise candidate.

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