* Diab designated with Hezbollah’s support
* U.S. envoy pushes for “meaningful” reforms
* Denies U.S. meddling in Lebanon’s protests
* Demonstrators seek removal of ruling elite
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Dala Osseiran
BEIRUT, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Lebanon’s prime minister designate said he would work to form a government within six weeks to help pull the country out of a deepening economic crisis, dismissing accusations he would be dominated by the powerful Iranian backed-Hezbollah movement.
Hassan Diab, an academic and former education minister, was designated on Thursday as the country’s next prime minister with the support of the heavily armed Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most influential group, and its allies.
“Previous governments in the last decade took a year to form and I seek to form a government in the next four weeks or a period that does not exceed six weeks,” Diab said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
The designation set the stage for a cabinet without allies of the United States and Sunni Gulf Arab states while underlining the sway of Iran’s friends. The move will complicate efforts to secure Western financial aid, analysts say.
Lebanon, in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, has been seeking a new government since Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Oct. 29 in response to protests against a ruling elite seen as venal and incompetent.
Efforts to reach a deal on a new premier have been hurt by rifts that reflect tensions between Hariri, who is aligned with the West and Gulf Arab states, and Hezbollah. Washington sees Hezbollah as a terrorist group and has imposed sanctions on it.
Senior U.S. State Department official David Hale, who arrived on Friday to underline Washington’s support for Lebanon’s stability, urged the country’s bickering political leaders to implement speedy economic reforms.
“I am here to encourage Lebanese political leaders to commit and undertake meaningful, sustained reforms that can lead to a stable, prosperous, secure Lebanon,” Under-Secretary David Hale said after meeting President Michel Aoun.
“It’s time to put aside partisan interests and act in the national interest, advancing reforms and form a government committed to undertaking these reforms and capable of doing so,” said Hale, who later met parliament speaker Nabih Berri and had lunch with Hariri.
Washington, which Hezbollah accuses of inciting some protesters, was not meddling in Lebanon’s politics and wanted a government responsive to the needs of its people, Hale said.
Aoun told Hale the new government had “many tasks ahead” of it and said peaceful protesters were being protected by the army to safeguard freedom of speech, which Washington has consistently urged Lebanon’s authorities to uphold.
Since the protests broke out, there have been several attacks by supporters of Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal against anti-government demonstrators in a square in Beirut. Security forces have intervened to prevent the attacks from escalating amid fears of wider countrywide clashes.
Aoun said he hoped the new government would bring stability.
“It will be made up of a team that is homogenous, that is able to face the difficult conditions faced by Lebanon,” Aoun was quoted as saying in a statement.
Diab, who failed to win’s Hariri’s support under a sectarian political system that leaves the premiership to a Sunni Muslim, dismissed accusations that the government would be under Hezbollah’s thumb. Hariri is Lebanon’s main Sunni politician.
“This matter is silly because the new government will not be a government of a political grouping chosen from here or there,” Diab added.
Skirmishes meanwhile broke out between Hariri’s supporters and army troops in Beirut’s Corniche Al Mazzarah district, where Hariri’s followers on Thursday evening burned tyres and blocked roads in protest at Diab’s designation. The troops sought to prevent Hariri’s followers staging a repeat of the protest.
In Paris, France’s foreign ministry said Lebanese officials needed to create a government taking into account the general interest of all Lebanese. “The only criteria should be that of the efficiency of the government to serve the reforms which are expected by the population,” a spokesman told reporters when asked about Diab’s designation.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Dala Osseiran, Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Editing by David Clarke, William Maclean