Lebanon celebrates the election of a new president

Michel Suleiman reviews Lebanese troops May 25, 2008, outside Lebanon's parliament shortly after being elected president.
Michel Suleiman reviews Lebanese troops May 25, 2008, outside Lebanon's parliament shortly after being elected president.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon's feuding political factions put aside their differences Sunday 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 Lebanon's cedar flag emblem 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 toward a solid reconciliation," Suleiman, 59, said. "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 of all backgrounds welcomed their new president and the end of an 18-month power struggle.

Suleiman is a Maronite Christian, in accordance with Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing agreement. But while he 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 demands during peace talks in Doha, Qatar, last week.

Arab mediators there negotiated a peace agreement that allowed Hezbollah to keep its vast arsenal intact, gave it veto power over all government decisions, and tweaked electoral law to better represent the country's disparate sects.

In return, the opposition agreed to dismantle a protest camp that has stood in downtown for months, remove its gunmen from the streets, and stop blocking Suleiman's path to the presidency.

"I was very sick of this country and I was just waiting to finish my semester so I could leave...I felt that Lebanon was over," said Jean-Claude Akiki, 21, a student at the American University in Beirut. "Now I know there is hope. Lebanon has a head today. It is no longer headless."

Suleiman, wearing a business suit after trading in his military uniform and bidding goodbye to his troops, took pains to appease both sides in his speech Sunday.

The new president defended Hezbollah's right to retain its weapons because Lebanon remains "weak," then emphasized that such arms were not to be used internally. Suleiman added that Lebanon should restore its ties with neighboring Syria, which dominated its smaller Mediterranean neighbor for a generation, but also backed the government's goal of an international tribunal to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Some pro-government groups had criticized Suleiman's close ties to Syria; he reportedly was appointed army chief by Damascus in 1998 and his brother-in-law was the official spokesman of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose son is now in power.

"I call on you all, people and politicians, for a new beginning," Suleiman said before legislators who cheered and offered him a standing ovation. "Let us be united."

Several international dignitaries — including a U.S. congressional delegation and the foreign ministers of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and France — had gathered in Beirut ahead of the vote to show support for this first step toward reconciliation. And even though the deal that paved the way for Suleiman's presidency was a setback for the White House, which had backed the fragile Lebanese government for three years, President Bush also sent his approval of the election.

"I am confident that Lebanon has chosen a leader committed to protecting its sovereignty, extending the government's authority over all of Lebanon, and upholding Lebanon's international obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions," Bush said in a statement.

The breakthrough heartened ordinary Lebanese, who'd feared another protracted war after this month brought the worst violence since the nation's bloody, 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Some downtown shopkeepers whose stores had been shuttered because of the opposition protest camp returned this week, offering bonuses to employees and posting signs in their windows that read, "We all say thank you, Qatar."

"We will finally have a president after six long months of waiting. It's about time for someone to come and fill the empty seat," said a Sunni man who gave his name only as Mahmoud as he lounged at a seaside cafe Sunday. "Now we know when we wake up every day and watch the morning news we are not going to see two politicians fighting on TV, accusing and blaming each other for the presidential crisis we had for the past six months."

(McClatchy Special Correspondent Nayel reported from Beirut, Allam from Cairo, Egypt.)

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