Hezbollah in Lebanon cabinet

Mr Siniora’s cabinet, which was approved by President Emile Lahoud after three previous draft line-ups had been rejected, is the first elected government since Syria ended its three-decade military presence in April.

“It is a coherent team … chosen to overcome the challenges confronting Lebanon,” Mr Siniora told reporters, saying he was proud to have Hezbollah in his cabinet.

“It is excellent that Hezbollah is in the government … It has a strong popular base and must be represented.”

The decision has prompted a warning from Washington that it would reject any contacts with a Lebanese minister from Hezbollah.

While welcoming Mr Siniora’s cabinet as a step forward in democratic reform, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the US would not be able to engage with Mohammed Fneich, the Hezbollah representative whom Mr Siniora named as energy and water resources minister.

“To the extent that there were members of Hezbollah, active members of a foreign terrorist organisation that are present in the government, our ability to deal with those individuals is circumscribed by law,” said Mr Ereli.

“We have a policy toward Hezbollah. It’s clear. It hasn’t changed,” said Mr Ereli.

Mr Siniora, a 62-year-old former finance minister who was a close ally of slain ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, also pledged that his new government would do everthing it could to improve relations with neighbouring Syria.

Ties with Damascus have taken a turn for the worse since Syria’s troop pullout and the May-June elections, which gave anti-Syrian groups a majority in parliament for the first time since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Mr Siniora said that after his cabinet receives a vote of confidence from parliament he will travel to Syria to “smooth over differences” with Damascus.

He also called on the Arab League to aid in that, particularly in helping to break the bottleneck in cross-border traffic since the Syrian withdrawal, created by more stringent Syrian checks at the frontier, which has been causing economic hardship in Lebanon.

Mr Siniora has pledged to try to rebuild national unity shaken by the February assassination of Mr Hariri, and to embark on sweeping reforms to revive the debt-laden economy.