Lebanon fails again to elect president amid continued deadlock

17th attempt to vote in pro-Western coalition leader Suleiman lacks quorum due to absence of opposition members in parliament; session delayed, speaker calls for dialogue, power-sharing.

Lebanon's lawmakers on Tuesday failed yet again to convene in sufficient numbers to elect a president, as the country's divided factions remain at odds over power-sharing in a future government. Parliament has tried 17 times since September to vote in army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman as a consensus president. But opposition lawmakers have been ignoring slated parliament sessions, leaving the 128-seat house without the necessary two-thirds quorum needed for the balloting. The pro-Western government coalition has only a slim majority and needs some opposition lawmakers to show up for the quorum. When it became clear this wouldn't happen, parliament speaker Nabih Berri put off Tuesday's session. Berri did not immediately schedule a new session, as he has done in the past. Instead, he renewed calls for the feuding factions to engage in dialogue on a package that would include power-sharing. If the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority rejects his call, he said he would then set a new session date. "The way for a resolution is only through dialogue," Berri said. For its part, the government coalition maintains that such discussions should come after a president is elected and says previous attempts at dialogue have led nowhere. The postponement was widely expected - lawmakers from the ruling coalition have routinely been showing up for parliament sessions, while those from the Syria-backed, Hizbullah-led opposition have stayed away. Speaking earlier in Kuwait, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said another postponement would be "sad, sad, sad," and that he failed to understand why Lebanese politicians and civil society are "not willing to offer us a new perspective." Kouchner spoke to AP Television news after meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem. It was the first such meeting since Paris and Damascus last December suspended top-level contacts over Lebanon. Washington and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's bloc have accused Syria of blocking the presidential election. Damascus has denied the charge, while its Lebanese allies have blamed Washington for scuttling attempts to reach a solution. The international community is increasingly concerned over Lebanon's crisis. Arab nations delegates meeting in Kuwait were expected to discuss Lebanon, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Monday called for Lebanon to immediately elect a president, without foreign interference. The presidential deadlock has become Lebanon's worst political crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, and the fierce power struggle between the government and the opposition has occasionally degenerated into violence. Lebanese troops in armored carriers sealed off parts of downtown Beirut around the Parliament building to ensure security Tuesday. A shooting Sunday killed two members of the pro-government Christian Phalange Party in the eastern town of Zahle. A suspect from the opposition is wanted in the shooting. The opposition said the shooting was an isolated incident.