(photo credit: AP)
Rival Lebanese political leaders stepped up their dialogue Thursday trying to reach an agreement on a new president and prevent the country from sliding deeper into a crisis that threatens its unity.
The discussions between the pro-government and opposition camps began immediately after Parliament failed Tuesday to elect a president because of a boycott by the Hizbullah-led opposition.
Since then, the leader of the pro-government majority in Parliament, Saad Hariri, has met three times with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition - their first meetings in months. On Thursday, Hariri held talks with Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church.
Under Lebanon's sectarian-based political system, the president traditionally hails from the Maronite community, which makes up the largest sect among the minority Christians.
The presidential choice has been deadlocked amid the power struggle between the anti-Syrian majority coalition, led by US-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, and the opposition, led by the Shi'ite Muslim group Hizbullah that is backed by Syria and Iran.
Failure to reach a compromise by the time President Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian, steps down Nov. 24 threatens the spark the most serious political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war: the creation of two rival governments, one backed by Saniora's coalition, the other by the opposition.
Anti-Syrian politicians are seeking to put one of their own in the post, but the opposition has vowed to block any candidate it doesn't endorse. Talks have focused on trying to find a neutral figure - a rarity in Lebanon's deeply polarized politics.
But there are concerns among many, particularly in the majority coalition, that a neutral candidate would be weak and unable to bring the parties together.
"We want a president who is strong, who has political standing and understands the Lebanese issues," Hariri said after meeting Sfeir.
Hariri met later with ally Samir Geagea, a leading Christian member of the anti-Syrian coalition for consultations. Geagea said choosing a president by consensus "is our first choice" but said chances of that happening were "50-50."
More than 15 declared or undeclared candidates are vying for the post, three of them members of the pro-government camp and one from the opposition.
Some have touted the respected head of the military Gen. Michel Suleiman or central bank governor Riad Salameh as possible compromises.
Opposition leader Michel Aoun has tried to promote himself as a uniting figure but is seen by the rival camp as deeply partisan.
Although the two sides were still far apart, the dialogue has helped ease tensions that built up before Tuesday's parliamentary meeting.
Days before the session, pro-government lawmaker Antoine Ghanem was killed in a bomb blast, renewing accusations by government supporters that Syria is targeting members of the ruling coalition.
Syria has denied any involvement in the bombing or in a series of assassinations since 2005, including that of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Parliament next attempts the presidential vote on Oct. 23. On Tuesday, the opposition boycotted the session, preventing it from reaching the required two-thirds quorum.
If Parliament cannot elect a president by Nov. 24, Saniora and his Cabinet would automatically take on executive powers. In this case, the opposition is urging Lahoud to appoint another government before he leaves office.
That could result in two rival administrations, as occurred in the last two years of the civil war, when army units loyal to two governments fought it out.
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