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Political crisis deepens in Lebanon

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071123/ap_on_re_mi_ea/lebanon_election Political crisis deepens in Lebanon By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer 7 minutes
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 23, 2007

      Political crisis deepens in Lebanon

      By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer 7 minutes

      BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon's political tumult
      intensified Friday as President Emile Lahoud said the
      country is in a "state of emergency" and handed
      security powers to the army hours before leaving
      office without a successor. The rival, pro-Western
      Cabinet rejected the move.

      Lahoud's announcement created new confusion in an
      already unsettled situation, which many Lebanese fear
      could explode into violence between supporters of
      Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government and the
      pro-Syria opposition led by the Shiite militant group

      The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of the Syrian
      regime during nine years in office, was a long-sought
      goal of the government installed by parliament's
      anti-Syria majority, which has been trying to put one
      of its own in the presidency.

      Hezbollah and other opposition groups have blocked
      legislators from electing a new president by
      boycotting ballot sessions, leaving parliament without
      the required quorum.

      The fight has put Lebanon into dangerous, unknown
      territory: Both sides are locked in bitter
      recriminations, accusing the other of breaking the
      constitution, and they are nowhere near a compromise
      on a candidate to become head of state.

      The army command refused to comment on the
      developments. The military, under its widely respected
      chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, has sought to remain
      neutral in the political chaos.

      Lahoud was expected to step down when his term expired
      at midnight, leaving the presidency vacant after
      parliament failed again to convene earlier Friday to
      vote on a successor.

      Even before the president's vague announcement, the
      military was in place to guard against the two sides'
      supporters taking the conflict to the streets. On
      alert for days, hundreds of soldiers stood with tanks,
      armored personnel carriers and jeeps in the area
      around the downtown parliament building as well as on
      roads leading into Beirut.

      The capital was largely calm, save for some fireworks
      from Lahoud supporters.

      Lahoud's vaguely worded statement wasn't a formal
      declaration of a state of emergency, but he enflamed
      tempers with his reference to a "state of emergency"
      in Lebanon.

      "Because a state of emergency exists all over the land
      as of Nov. 24, 2007, the army is instructed to
      preserve security all over the Lebanese territory,"
      the presidential spokesman, Rafik Shalala, said.

      The constitution requires the Cabinet to approve any
      state of emergency, and Saniora's government quickly
      rejected the announcement.

      "It has no value and is unconstitutional and
      consequently it is considered as if it was not
      issued," said a government spokesman, who asked not to
      be identified because an official announcement had not
      yet been made by the prime minister.

      Later, a government statement said the Cabinet
      "continues to shoulder its responsibilities and
      exercise its full authority."

      Shalala argued Saniora's position didn't matter
      because his government was not constitutional — the
      position voiced by Lahoud and the opposition since the
      Cabinet's five Shiite Muslim members quit last year.

      Further complications awaited the expiration of
      Lahoud's term at midnight. Under the constitution, the
      government is supposed to take on the president's
      powers if he leaves office without a replacement.
      Lahoud had vowed not to hand his authorities to
      Saniora — and his reference to a state of emergency
      might have been an attempt to escape doing so.

      Saniora signaled earlier that his government planned
      to assume the powers. His top ally, the United States,
      said Friday that was the proper path.

      "This is the procedure stipulated by the Lebanese
      constitution, and will ensure that the government is
      able to continue conducting its business without
      interruption," State Department spokesman Sean
      McCormack said in Washington.

      Calling for the election of a new president "as
      quickly as possible," McCormack said, "We urge all
      Lebanese political groups to do their part to maintain
      calm and promote security for Lebanon's citizens."

      Opposition leader Michel Aoun warned the Cabinet that
      "usurping the role of the presidency" would increase
      its "illegitimacy." But he appeared to be trying to
      ease fears of violence by adding that the opposition
      would "calmly confront" the situation.

      It was unclear if Lahoud sought to give the military
      any powers beyond security measures.

      The military command declined to comment on the
      president's statement, but Suleiman, the military
      commander, told his troops earlier in the week to
      ignore the constitutional wrangling and "listen to the
      call of duty."

      The anti-Syria camp has sought to capture the
      presidency to seal the end of Syria dominance of
      Lebanon, which lasted for 29 years until international
      pressure and mass protests forced Damascus to withdraw
      Syrian troops in 2005.

      Hezbollah, which is an ally of Syria and Iran, and its
      opposition allies have been able to stymie the
      government's hopes by boycotting parliament, as they
      did Friday afternoon when the majority tried to
      convene a session to vote before Lahoud left office.

      Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with
      the opposition, scheduled another session for Nov. 30
      to give the factions more time to try to find a
      compromise candidate — something they failed to do in
      weeks of talks mediated by France's foreign minister
      and others.

      Leaders from each side had been pledging not to take
      steps to provoke the other — though Lahoud's
      announcement raised the heat.

      "We have no choice but to have a consensus," Saad
      Hariri, leader of the anti-Syria majority in
      parliament, said after the failed session. "It is not
      in Lebanon's interest that the (presidential) palace
      is left empty."

      Another factor complicating the crisis was the
      U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference next week.

      Government supporters have accused Syria of using its
      allies in Lebanon to block a deal on the presidency
      until it sees what it gets in the conference. Damascus
      wants the meeting in Annapolis, Md., to address its
      demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan

      France on Friday called for patience to resolve
      Lebanon's crisis but also chided Syria. French Foreign
      Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said it's up to
      the "Syrians, like everyone else, to remember that the
      goal is not to hinder the process but to help it."
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