BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon’s pro-Syrian prime minister-designate Omar Karameh has stalled on his plan to resign in the latest setback for efforts to form a new government to organise elections due in May.  The opposition, meanwhile, welcomed Syria’s pledge to the United Nations on Wednesday to complete a troop withdrawal from Lebanon ahead of the parliamentary polls. Karameh said he first needed to consult his allies in the pro-Syrian camp before giving up on efforts to form a national unity government in the wake of the February 14 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri. “I have informed Mr Lahoud that I am preparing to announce my decision,” he said after talks with President Emile Lahoud.

“But I will only do so within the next 48 hours so as to consult with my allies,” said Karameh, who had announced Tuesday that he planned to stand down, throwing in the towel for a second time since the killing of Hariri.

A source close to the pro-Syrian Shiite movement Amal said the meeting would take place on Friday.

After his talks with the president, who is also in the pro-Syrian camp which has been blamed for the murder of the popular former premier and construction tycoon Hariri, Karameh denied any rift with Lahoud.

“We are in the same camp,” he stressed.

Newspapers reported Wednesday that differences had emerged between the two men following a meeting on Sunday between the president and the Maronite Christian patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir.

“President Lahoud sold me out by agreeing with… Sfeir and promising him to work for a government which is not necessarily one of national unity,” Karameh was quoted as saying in the Arab daily Al-Hayat.

An outgoing minister, asking not to be named, admitted to “tussling” within the pro-Syrian camp.

“Either there will be a government of national unity, or we are headed for an open crisis, that is to say the impossibility of forming a cabinet in time to organise the elections by the end of May,” he warned.

Karameh has been operating on a caretaker basis since first resigning on February 28 in the face of massive opposition protests over the killing of his rival Hariri. On March 10, Lahoud asked him to try to form a new government.

The opposition has accused the outgoing government of seeking to postpone the elections for fear of being swept from parliament by the wave of anger over Hariri’s murder.

Political power-broker Damascus said Tuesday in a letter to UN chief Kofi Annan it would withdraw its remaining troops in Lebanon — which Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara said number 10,000 — before the elections.

Syria’s UN ambassador Fayssal Mekdad said Damascus was “definitely” committed to the pullout of troops, first sent in during Lebanon’s brutal 1975-1990 civil war.

An opposition spokesman welcomed the pledge.


“It is a positive decision but we await confirmation by the UN envoy,” Samir Abdel Malak told AFP, referring to Terje Roed-Larsen, who is tasked with overseeing implemention of Security Council 1559 which calls for a Syrian withdrawal,

The envoy is expected in Damascus early next week to work on a timetable for the completion of the pullout, which has already seen Syria redeploy its troops to the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon.

Abdel Malak, spokesman of the Christian opposition movement Qornet Shehwan, said “things have picked up pace” since the publication last week of a UN fact-finding mission’s report into the killing.

It criticised both the Lebanese and Syrian authorities, while blaming Damascus for the political tension which formed the backdrop for the huge Beirut bomb blast in which Hariri and 19 others died.

On the ground Wednesday, a general strike in protest at the string of bomb attacks and hoax alarms that have rattled the economy was at first only partially implemented but later spread to most shops.

Banks were unaffected by the strike called by traders’ associations.

Shops stayed shuttered in the mainly Christian district of Ashrafieh in east Beirut, while most businesses in the capital’s major commercial thoroughfare of Hamra Street followed suit by mid-day.

Three bombings have targeted Christian neighbourhoods since Hariri’s killing, one of them a deadly attack in which three people were killed.