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Popular Army Chief Is New Lebanon Leader

October 16, 1998|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — With unanimous approval in parliament, Lebanon's popular army commander was elected president Thursday. But the most important vote had already been cast--by Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Syria exercises an unofficial, though universally recognized, suzerainty over Lebanon. And Assad gave Gen. Emile Lahoud the nod last week from Damascus.

The only dissenting voice to Lahoud's ascension as the country's 11th president was from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who objected on principle to a military officer becoming head of state. Jumblatt was among 10 deputies who abstained from voting.

Nevertheless, Lebanese of all faiths appeared to welcome the dynamic, no-nonsense officer, credited with largely expunging sectarianism from Lebanon's military. Many expressed hope that he will do the same for the government.

Lahoud will be sworn in Nov. 24 to succeed President Elias Hrawi, another Syria loyalist who served for nine years. Over the past year, Hrawi became embroiled in squabbles with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and members of the media. The 72-year-old Hrawi is retiring.

Newspapers were filled with accolades for Lahoud, and his portraits were displayed around the capital, Beirut, on Thursday. Money traders pushed up the value of the Lebanese pound when it became clear that Lahoud would be elected.

"In a country that sleeps on a rumor and wakes up to a calumny, no one was able to fabricate rumors about or cast aspersions on Lahoud," Lebanese commentator Samir Atallah wrote in the Pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al Awsat. "His strength . . . can be summed up in one word: his record."

Lahoud, a 62-year-old Christian who began his military career in the Lebanese navy under British and U.S. trainers, has long been a prominent figure in Lebanon. He made his mark Oct. 13, 1990, when Lebanese troops under his command joined a Syrian-led attack to oust his predecessor as army commander, Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, from his stronghold. The action proved to be the decisive end to Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

A Syrian-imposed peace took root the following year, and Lahoud was assigned to rebuild the army, which during the civil war had fragmented along religious lines.

By tradition in Lebanon, the presidency is held by a Maronite Christian, the premiership by a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker's chair by a Shiite.

That practice survived Lebanon's civil war, but the president was reduced to more a figurehead than a real leader. One question now is whether Lahoud, by dint of his personal popularity and the loyalty of the army, will bring greater authority back to the presidential office.

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