Mon, Jan 07, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Syria endorses Lebanon's candidate

RESOLVE DIFFERENCES Foreign ministers from Arab nations released a statement unanimously backing Commander General Michel Suleiman for the presidency


Syria joined other Arab nations in endorsing the head of Lebanon's army as that country's next president, putting pressure on the Lebanese opposition to drop demands that have blocked a compromise over the post.

During a meeting on Saturday in Cairo, Arab foreign ministers agreed unanimously to back Commander General Michel Suleiman for president and called on Lebanon's rival parties to resolve their political differences.

Syria's decision to back the statement suggested that the Lebanese opposition --led by the Syrian-backed Hezbollah --may be ready to drop its demand that it receive Cabinet veto power before allowing Suleiman to be elected.

"Stemming from Arab responsibilities toward Lebanon and in continuation of Arab efforts to help Lebanon overcome its crisis, the ministers ... call on the concerned parties in Lebanon to reach a consensus," the foreign ministers said in a statement.

The statement called on Lebanon to elect a president by Jan. 27. It urged Lebanon to first elect Suleiman, then resolve the issues surrounding a national unity government. The ministers also said the new president should have the power to cast his vote to break ties in the Cabinet.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told reporters late on Saturday that the foreign ministers would agree on a plan for Lebanon's parties to "hold immediate elections and form the national unity government."

Lebanon has been without a president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term ended on Nov. 23. The crisis over the presidency has capped a yearlong power struggle between the anti-Syrian politicians -- who hold a slim majority in parliament and support the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora -- and the opposition led by the militant group Hezbollah.

Lawmakers on both sides have agreed to back Suleiman as a compromise candidate, but the parliament must first amend the Constitution to allow a sitting military chief to become president.

This process has been complicated by the opposition's demand for a new unity government that would give it veto power over major decisions. Opposition boycotts have thwarted attempts to choose a president by preventing a two-thirds quorum.

The ruling coalition accuses the opposition of obstructing the presidential vote under orders from Syria and Iran. In turn, the opposition claims pro-government groups in the parliament majority follow US policies.

Syria effectively controlled Lebanon for almost three decades but was forced to withdraw its thousands of troops in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

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