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Originally published Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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Lebanese president accepts premier's resignation

Lebanon's president on Saturday asked the outgoing prime minister to stay on in a caretaking role, opening the way for what is expected to be prolonged political jockeying as parliamentary blocs try to build a majority coalition to form a new government.

Associated Press

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BEIRUT —

Lebanon's president on Saturday asked the outgoing prime minister to stay on in a caretaking role, opening the way for what is expected to be prolonged political jockeying as parliamentary blocs try to build a majority coalition to form a new government.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati's abrupt departure has plunged the nation into uncertainty amid heightened sectarian tensions and clashes related to the civil war next door in Syria.

Sporadic clashes continued in the northern city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad. At least one person was wounded Saturday, according to the state-run National News Agency.

Mikati stepped down on Friday amid a political deadlock between Lebanon's two main political camps and infighting within his own government.

"I hope that this resignation will provide an opening in the existing deadlock and pave the way for a (political) solution," Mikati said, following a meeting with Michel Suleiman.

Mikati has been prime minister since June 2011, heading a government dominated by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its allies, many of whom have a close relationship with Syria.

Their main rivals are a Western-backed coalition headed by former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, who was also prime minister and was killed in a truck bombing in 2005.

A Harvard-educated billionaire, Mikati was chosen to lead the government after Hezbollah forced the collapse of Lebanon's previous, pro-Western government over fears that a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the killing of the elder Hariri would indict Hezbollah members.

But Mikati's relations with Hezbollah have never been smooth. He has rejected the notion that he serves Hezbollah or that his government will act as an Iranian proxy. Hezbollah accuses him of being loyal to its rival camp.

He stepped down to protest the parliament's inability to agree on a law to govern elections set for later this year, as well as the refusal by Hezbollah and its allies in the cabinet to extend the tenure of the country's police chief. Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi is 58 and is about to hit the mandatory retirement age for his rank.

Rifi, like Mikati, is a Sunni Muslim who is considered a foe by Hezbollah.

In a speech on Friday, Mikati said that if Rifi was not allowed to stay on, his departure would create a "vacuum" in the police department.

Underpinning the political crisis are Lebanon's hugely sectarian politics and the fact that the country's two largest political blocs support opposite sides in Syria's civil war. Lebanon and Syria share a complex network of political and sectarian ties, and many fear that violence in Syria will spread to Lebanon.

Opposition activists celebrated Mikati's resignation by dismantling protest tents they had pitched outside the prime minister's office for months, calling for the government's resignation.

Among those was Karim Rifae, who said Hezbollah was preparing a second "coup" against the Lebanese state.

"They started with bringing such a government in, and when it fulfilled their targets, now they are removing it to create a deadly vacuum starting with the government then the parliament," he said.

There were signs of rising tensions before the resignation.

On Friday, gunmen who support and oppose Assad clashed in Tripoli, leaving six people dead and more than 20 wounded, according to the National News Agency. Clashes between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tabbaneh, which supports Syria's rebels, and the adjacent Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, which supports Assad, have broken out repeatedly in recent months. Assad is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot sect.

Also in Tripoli, the Lebanese army said a soldier was killed and several others wounded during an army raid to capture several gunmen.

Mikati's resignation may be an attempt to boost his credentials among his fellow Sunni Muslims ahead of the upcoming election and amid the violence in Tripoli, his hometown.

Some Lebanese media have speculated that his decision to step down was based on "insinuations" from the U.S. and its allies to clear the way for an anti-Hezbollah majority, or at least a neutral government. Mikati in his speech denied that he had been pressured by foreign powers, insisting that it was a "personal choice without any intervention from anyone."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday the Lebanese people deserve a government that reflects their aspirations.

"And we have grave concerns about the role that Hezbollah plays," she added.

British Foreign Minister William Hague expressed concern about the violence in Tripoli and urged all parties to work for "a more consensual government" as the challenges from Syria grow.

"It is critical that all parties in Lebanon prioritize national interests and ... reach a broad consensus to enable parliamentary elections to take place within the legal and constitutional framework," he said in a statement.

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