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Lebanon's Hezbollah should get health ministry, senior member says

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri heads a general parliament discussion in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's Hezbollah group should get the Health Ministry in the new government, a senior Hezbollah figure said on Wednesday, a more important state agency than any it has controlled in recent times as it provides services to millions of people.

Hezbollah control over the Health Ministry could have implications for foreign aid, as the Iran-backed group is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and some other Western as well as Arab countries.

Mohammed Fnaish, the youth and sport minister in the caretaker government, told the group's al-Manar TV station that Hezbollah had an agreement with Lebanon's other main Shi'ite party Amal for Hezbollah to run the health ministry.

Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri has been negotiating with Lebanon's rival parties since a parliamentary election in May to form a new power-sharing cabinet, but has so far been unable to reach consensus.

The major parties have jostled over the number of cabinet seats they should get, and over the apportionment of the most powerful ministries.

However, this week, there have been signs of a break in the deadlock, with numerous politicians voicing concern over the threat of a looming economic crisis.

Hariri said on Tuesday that all sides had made concessions in the talks and he hoped the new government would be formed after President Michel Aoun returns from a trip abroad. Aoun is expected to come back on Friday.

Last week Hariri said he had no objection himself to Hezbollah taking the health portfolio, but that if it did so, there was a big possibility that the World Bank or other international bodies could stop aid to the Health Ministry.

Lebanon is a major recipient of aid, both directly and through international bodies. Earlier this year it secured billions of dollars in commitments to soft loans, including from the World Bank, contingent on fiscal and other reforms.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said earlier on Wednesday that some saw "a positive, promising atmosphere" in the talks about forming a new government and his office was engaged in contacts on the issue though these required more time.

Berri, long one of the most powerful figures in Lebanon, also said the economic situation was "very fragile" and urged everyone to "shoulder their responsibilities", according to al-Manar.

Lebanon has the third largest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world at more than 150 percent, and the new government is expected to start moves towards bringing down the deficit.

The International Monetary Fund urged Lebanon in June to make an "immediate and substantial fiscal" adjustment to make its debt load more sustainable.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Tom Perry and Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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