BEIRUT (AP) — A British-educated lawmaker from a prominent political family was named Lebanon's new prime minister Saturday, and vowed to work toward ending divisions in the nation and preventing the civil war in neighboring Syria from spilling over into the country.
Tammam Salam, a 68-year-old lawmaker and a former culture minister, was asked by President Michel Suleiman to head a new government. Lebanon's parliament strongly endorsed Salam, who is widely seen as a consensus figure, with 124 lawmakers in the 128-seat legislature voting in favor of his nomination.
A difficult job in the best of times, Salam faces an even more daunting list of challenges than usual for a Lebanese prime minister.
The country faces rising sectarian tensions linked to Syria's civil war, with Lebanon's two largest political blocs supporting opposite sides in the fight between Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and rebel fighters trying to oust him. The conflict also has forced some 400,000 Syrians to seek refuge in Lebanon, putting a severe straining on the country of 4 million to cope with the influx.
"I start from the necessity of taking Lebanon out of divisions and political tensions that were reflected in the security situation," Salam said in his first public statement after being chosen.
He added that he also wants to mitigate threats from the "catastrophic situation next door," remarks aimed at trying to allay fears in Lebanon that Syria's 2-year-old civil war, which has killed more than 70,000 people, will spread to Lebanon.
Salam said he would do his best to form a "national interest government," a process that could take time because of the sharp divisions among Lebanese politicians as a result of the Syrian crisis.
Once he cobbles together a Cabinet, his new government must win a vote of confidence in parliament to be approved. Many here will be keeping close tabs on how Salam will deal with the militant Hezbollah group and its arsenal, which is one of the biggest dividing issues among Lebanese.
Hezbollah's armed wing is the strongest military force in the country, outstripping even the national army, and many Lebanese are wary of the Shiite militant group's power and refusal to set aside their arms.
Hezbollah and many other Lebanese, however, counter that the weapons are necessary to defend Lebanon against any Israeli attack.
Salam went straight home from the presidential palace where he was seen kissing the hand of his Syrian mother, Tamima Mardam Beik. "I took my mother's blessing," he told reporters while sitting between her and his wife, Lama Badreddine.