(photo credit: AP)
Lebanese leaders pledged Thursday to press ahead with a divisive election for president, to be held in Parliament in coming days, despite the car bombing assassination of an anti-Syrian lawmaker.
The powerful bomb Wednesday killed lawmaker Antoine Ghanem and six others, and threatened to derail efforts to bring the country's rival parties together to agree on a head of state ahead of time, before voting is set to begin next week.
At least 67 were wounded in the explosion, which severely damaged buildings and set cars ablaze during rush hour on a busy street in Sin el-Fil, a Christian neighborhood of Beirut.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora pledged that Lebanon would press ahead to pick a president.
"The hand of terror will not win and will not succeed in subduing us and silencing us," he said in a statement late Wednesday carried by the official news agency. "The Lebanese will not retreat and will have a new president elected by lawmakers, no matter how big the conspiracy was."
Ghanem, 64, a member of the Christian Phalange party, had returned from refuge abroad only two days earlier. He was the eighth anti-Syria figure and fourth governing coalition lawmaker to be assassinated in less than three years.
Coalition members blamed Syria for the death, but Damascus denied involvement, as it has for the previous seven assassinations, including the 2005 bombing death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Saniora asked the United Nations secretary-general in a letter to add the Ghanem assassination to an international probe into Hariri's slaying and other political crimes in Lebanon.
Schools, universities and many businesses in Christian areas of Beirut, plus in the Mount Lebanon region north of the capital, closed Thursday in a day of mourning and to observe a strike called by the Phalange Party. A funeral was to be held Friday.
President Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria, is due to step down from the presidency Nov. 24, and government supporters see the vote as a chance to put one of their own in the post by a simple majority vote of 65. They still have that majority despite the latest slaying.
But the militant group Hezbollah and its allies in the pro-Syrian opposition vow to block any candidate they do not approve. They can do so by boycotting the vote, preventing the needed two-thirds quorum of 85 votes.
Many Lebanese fear the division over the presidency could lead to the creation of two rival governments - a grim prospect for Lebanon, which suffered through a bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, speaking to the leading An-Nahar newspaper, said he will go ahead with Tuesday's session to begin the process of electing a president.
"I am going to the session on Tuesday because we don't want the criminals' goals to be met," said Berri, a leading member of the opposition.
Lahoud also implied that Ghanem's death was meant to undermine the presidential vote, saying "it is no coincidence that whenever there are positive signs" that someone is killed.
But lawmaker Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated ex-premier, blamed the Syrian president.
"I have never seen a more cowardly regime than that of Bashar Assad's," said Hariri, who replaced his father as head of the anti-Syria forces who form the slim majority in Parliament.
The U.S.-backed Saniora has been mired in a power struggle with the opposition, led by the Syrian-allied Hezbollah.
Government supporters accuse Syria of seeking to end Saniora's small majority in Parliament by killing off lawmakers in his coalition, which now holds 68 seats to the opposition's 59.
After the assassination of lawmaker Walid Eido in June, many majority legislators left the country to spend the summer abroad in safety, while those who stayed took extra security.
Ghanem had returned only Monday from the United Arab Emirates, where he took refuge for two months. He was traveling Wednesday in a car with regular license plates - his blue Parliament plate hidden in the trunk, apparently as a security measure.
Antoine Andraos, another colleague, said Ghanem had called him earlier in the day asking for a bulletproof car, a TV station linked to Hariri reported.
Security officials said Wednesday that a landmark hotel near the Parliament building in downtown Beirut has been booked to house legislators in the governing majority so they can be better protected during the 60-day presidential election process.
The United States has accused Syria of trying to undermine Lebanon's government, but has stopped short of tying the Damascus regime to the political killings.