Lebanese majority backs army commander as president

Lebanon moves closer to a long-sought deal for army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman to become the next president.

michel suleiman 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
michel suleiman 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Lebanon moved closer Wednesday to a long-sought deal for army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman to become the next president in the first signs of a breakthrough between its divided factions, after the Annapolis conference eased tensions between their main backers, the United States and Syria. Suleiman is seen as a neutral figure in a country where nearly every politician is considered either in the pro- or anti-Syrian camp - one with the weight to ensure neither side dominates the other. Lebanon's constitution bars a sitting army commander from becoming president. But on Wednesday, the largest bloc in parliament - the anti-Syrian Future Movement - announced it has dropped its rejection of amending the constitution. A deal is not yet done. The opposition, led by Syria and Iran's ally Hizbullah, has not announced their stance on Suleiman, though he is respected among its leadership. There also remain deeply divisive questions over how to change the constitution. But it was the first sign of progress after weeks of stalemate that left Lebanon without a president after the term of pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud ended last week, creating a dangerous power vacuum. The movement could be a result of the easing of tensions between Damascus and Washington that culminated with Tuesday's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, which Syria attended. The US-Syrian rivalry has often played itself out in Lebanon's complex politics - and in past weeks each side in Lebanon has accused the other's international backer of meddling to block a deal on a president. Amin Kammouriyeh, columnist in the leading pro-government newspaper An-Nahar, said the Syrians and the Americans have been having contacts about a way out of the Lebanon impasse. "Annapolis capped the contacts between the two sides that had been going on for some time," he said. "What happened today (in Lebanon) was a practical translation of that." Nicolas Nassif, who writes for the opposition-leaning newspaper Al-Akhbar, said he doubted Annapolis itself would "give this immediate result" but rather "the atmosphere that preceded it, to place Lebanon away from the regional conflicts." He referred to French and Syrian discussions that also involved the Saudis to find a solution. The United States, which backs the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, has in the past pressed to end Syria's influence in Lebanon. Syria's allies in Lebanon, in turn, have accused Saniora of selling out the country to the Americans. The 59-year-old Suleiman was appointed with Syria's approval in 1998 when Damascus dominated Lebanon. But he refused to use the military to put down anti-Syrian demonstrations in 2005 that helped end Damascus' 29-year control. He also deployed troops in Hizbullah's stronghold of southern Lebanon last year for the first time - though some complain he has not done enough to stop the flow of weapons to the Shi'ite militant group - and this year his military waged a fierce fight against Islamic militants in a northern Palestinian refugee camp. Both moves brought heavy US support for the army. For Syria, he could stop anti-Syrian factions from dominating and hurting its allies when it has became clear the majority would not go for a candidate backed by the opposition and Damascus. Both sides in Lebanon have accepted the military's role in keeping security after Lahoud stepped down, leaving a void that many fear could erupt into violence between the two camps. Lawmaker Ammar Houry of the Future Movement called Suleiman a "symbol of the unity of the military establishment" which has kept the peace. "We declare our acceptance to amend the constitution in order to reach consensus on the name of the army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman," he said. The Future movement has 35 of Parliament's 128 seats, but its support is tantamount to acceptance by the full 68-member anti-Syrian majority coalition of Saniora. The coalition had been holding out install an anti-Syrian figure in the presidency after long trying to remove Lahoud, a staunch ally of Damascus. But it has been unable to muster the two-thirds majority of Parliament necessary to open an election session amid an opposition boycott. It had also resisted tooling with the constitution in principle, since past changes had been made to accommodate Lahoud. Lahoud was also an army commander but a 1998 one-time amendment allowed him to run for president - then a 2004 amendment pushed by Syria extended his term for three more years, angering anti-Syrian politicians. Hizbullah had no immediate comment on Suleiman's candidacy. A major wild card remains: Michel Aoun, a leading Christian opposition politician and former army commander who has pushed his own candidacy for the presidency. Allied to Hizbullah, it was unclear whether he would drop his bid and go along with Suleiman. Aoun has withheld comment while the legal experts argue over whether a constitutional amendment was possible. The amendment has its own difficulties tied up in the yearlong standoff. The government is required to request that Parliament amend the constitution, but the opposition refuses to recognize Saniora's administration, raising questions on how it can do so. Others have argued that with no president, Parliament cannot legislate and can only vote for president. The legislature was scheduled to try Friday to elect a president. But Houry said that arrangements to amend the constitution were unlikely to be finalized by Friday's session, suggesting the presidential vote would be put off to a later date. Suleiman had previously been floated as a candidate but has not commented on the latest developments. If elected he will have to retire from the military.