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Deadlock delays Lebanon vote

Election of a president is put off, but the U.S.- backed ruling coalition says it's willing to discuss a compromise with the opposition.

September 26, 2007|Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Lebanon's fractured government Tuesday put off electing a new president for another month, lacking a two-thirds quorum of lawmakers to convene and review nominations.

However, signs were emerging that the U.S.-backed faction of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was willing to discuss giving the Iranian- and Syrian-backed opposition greater influence in government policy, possibly breaking the deadlock.

Members of the pro-American coalition said they might consider redrawing Lebanon's political formula if opposition groups would allow investigations of the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other politicians who opposed Syria's influence here.

"We're willing to consider any compromise president, but not without certain conditions," said Antoine Zahra, a Christian lawmaker loyal to the pro-American coalition, which has a slight majority in parliament.

The only red line, he said, was that any new president must adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Hariri's killers to be brought to justice. Syria, which has long sought to control events in Lebanon, is widely suspected of playing a role in the 2005 assassination.

The ruling majority -- which includes the late prime minister's son Saad -- can secure enough votes to choose a president from its camp. However, it is unable to muster the quorum constitutionally required to hold a session for a parliamentary vote without the presence of opposition factions, such as Hezbollah, which boycotted Tuesday's session.

In the meantime, politicians said they would hold talks to find a consensus president acceptable to all parties. The parliament is to take up the issue again Oct. 23.

Lebanon's internecine politics are a battleground for influence, with the United States, France and other Western nations facing off against Iran and Syria, which back not only the Hezbollah militia but also its Christian and Shiite allies.

The fight now centers on a new president, who has the power to convene a government. The opposition also is demanding veto power over major government decisions. The pro-Western majority has refused to budge on both issues, and parliament has not convened since last year.

However, opposition figures said they detected a more conciliatory attitude from their rivals, such as Saad Hariri, who described "a positive atmosphere" during talks Tuesday.

"In today's session, there were fewer threats from the majority," said Nawar Sahili, a Hezbollah lawmaker. "We consider that the majority's opinion was rather positive today, in that they did not try to meet with just a majority."

An announcer on Al Manar, Hezbollah's satellite television channel, said that the pro-government camp was splitting. One hard-line faction has refused to budge, she said, while another was more willing to compromise -- influenced in part by talks between officials from Saudi Arabia, which has business ties with the Hariri family, and Iran, which backs Hezbollah.

Lawmakers with Siniora's pro-U.S. coalition have warned that if an agreement was not reached, they would ignore the quorum rule and elect a president, even in the absence of opposition lawmakers.

Thousands of soldiers, police officers and armored vehicles clamped down on the city's center before Tuesday's parliamentary gathering. Assassinations of pro-government politicians and journalists have rocked the capital in recent months.

Security forces choked off traffic as black-tinted Chevrolet Suburbans ferried pro-government lawmakers to the parliament from the upscale hotel where they've been staying since the assassination last week of anti-Syrian lawmaker Antoine Ghanem.

Lebanon's 128-seat National Assembly must choose a president to succeed pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud within two months.

By tradition, the president would be a Maronite Christian, while the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim.


Daragahi is a Times staff writer and Rafei a special correspondent.

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