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Lebanon finally picks president; Beirut's mood festive

BEIRUT, Lebanon_Lebanon's feuding political factions put aside their differences today and elected the nation's army commander as president, filling a six-month vacancy and bringing a festive feel to a capital that had been a war zone just days ago.

Beirut was adorned with cedar flags and portraits of Gen. Michel Suleiman in his military uniform as the Lebanese parliament met to formally name him president. After his swearing-in, Suleiman gave an inaugural speech that called for Lebanese unity and national dialogue in the wake of fierce sectarian battles that left about 70 people dead and some 200 wounded earlier this month.

"Let us unite…and work towards a solid reconciliation," Suleiman, 59, said after being sworn in before parliament. "We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it hand-in-hand."

Fireworks painted the sky, celebratory gunfire rang out and drivers honked their horns as Lebanese welcomed their new president and the end of an 18-month power struggle. Though Suleiman was the consensus candidate, his election was stalled by the power struggle between the U.S.-allied Lebanese government and the opposition movement led by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria. The infighting got so bad that there was no successor when the term of the previous president, pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud, ended in November.

The deadlock was broken earlier this month when Hezbollah and its allies took over much of Beirut in a violent response to a political provocation. With the balance of power then tipped in favor of the opposition, the government caved to Hezbollah's main demands during peace talks in Doha, Qatar last week.

Arab mediators there negotiated a peace agreement that fulfilled Hezbollah's three main goals: keeping its vast arsenal intact and untouchable, winning veto power over all government decisions, and tweaking electoral law to better represent the country's disparate sects.In return, the opposition agreed to dismantle its downtown protest camp, end all violent actions and stop blocking Suleiman's path to the presidency.

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