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Suleiman to be next Lebanese president

Lebanon's parliament gathers to elect army chief Michel Suleiman as head of state, reviving paralysed state institutions.

world Updated: May 25, 2008 20:42 IST
Laila Bassam

Lebanon's parliament gathered on Sunday to elect army chief Michel Suleiman as head of state, reviving paralysed state institutions after an 18-month standoff between a US-backed cabinet and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

The election is part of a deal brokered by Qatar last week to defuse a crisis that had swept Lebanon to the brink of civil war, with Hezbollah briefly seizing parts of Beirut and routing government partisans. At least 81 people were killed.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was among scores of dignitaries in Beirut for the vote. The many foreign ministers on the guest list included those of Iran and Syria, which support Hezbollah, and their regional rival Saudi Arabia.

"It is today a great day of hope for Lebanon, starting a new process of consolidation of democratic institutions," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

Lawmakers from the anti-Syrian ruling majority and the opposition assembled for the 5 pm (1400 GMT) session to elect Suleiman president and fill a post vacant since November. The vote had been postponed 19 times because of the crisis.

The deal struck in Doha met the opposition's main demand for veto power in a new national unity government and secured the choice of a president on good terms with Syria and Hezbollah.

The agreement, which also stipulates a new law for 2009 parliamentary polls, has calmed a conflict that had stoked sectarian tensions, paralysed government and hurt the economy.

Parliament has not met for over 18 months, crippling Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government. Bouts of violence claimed scores of lives and revived memories of the 1975-90 civil war.

Once Suleiman is elected, Siniora will resign, but will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.

The Doha deal was widely seen as a setback for Washington and its allies, which had pressed for Hezbollah to be disarmed.

Saudi Arabia, France and Egypt back the Beirut government while Iran and Syria support the opposition. No US administration official was expected at the parliamentary session though a delegation from Congress was due to attend.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manoushehr Mottaki visited the grave of Hezbollah leader Imad Moughniyah, who was assassinated in Damascus in February, before the vote -- which coincides with the anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

Lebanese troops tightened security in the capital, blocking off streets leading to parliament in downtown Beirut.

Syrian era

Under Lebanon's complex power-sharing system, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite Muslim.

Suleiman, who relinquishes his post as army commander, fills a chair vacated in November by Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria. Appointed army chief in 1998 when Damascus controlled Lebanon, Suleiman is inescapably linked to the Syrian-dominated era.

He coordinated closely with Syrian troops before they were forced to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 by an outcry sparked by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

As president, Suleiman will have to grapple with a slew of divisive issues including ties with Syria and a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for all militias to be disarmed -- a demand supported by Hezbollah's Lebanese opponents.

But his first task is to appoint a new prime minister and coordinate with him on the formation of the new cabinet.

Parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri is frontrunner for the job, but his ally Siniora could stay on, officials said. Suleiman must nominate whoever is backed by a majority of MPs.

Suleiman will be sworn in shortly after the vote and will deliver a speech to parliament, setting the tone for his six-year term. The Qatari ruler will also make a speech.

Fluent in English and French, as well as Arabic, Suleiman is married with three children. He graduated from the Military Academy in 1970 and holds a Lebanese University degree in politics and administration. He was born in the Christian village of Amchit.

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