Lebanon Picks New President; Aoun Defiant


Wealthy Christian landowner Elias Hrawi was elected Lebanon's president Friday and pledged to follow the course for uniting the war-ravaged country set by former President Rene Mouawad before his assassination Wednesday after just 17 days in office.

"The nation is determined to survive in defiance of President Mouawad's assassins," Lebanon Television announced as guns were fired into the air in celebration.

The election of Hrawi, an outspoken Maronite Christian lawmaker who has maintained friendly relations with Syria, won immediate endorsement from world leaders, including the United States, which called on Lebanon's armed forces to support the new president.

But Christian forces commander Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, whose threats to block a new reconciliation government forced deputies to conduct the election in the Syrian-protected market town of Chtoura, showed no immediate signs of dropping his resistance. He claims that a new government will lead to permanent Syrian dominance of Lebanon.

"Those who conducted the election have no constitutional capacity and do not represent the people. What happened is void, as if it did not happen," an Aoun spokesman told Reuters news agency in Beirut.

Aoun's official statement was more conciliatory, although it indirectly accused Hrawi of being under Syria's influence. "May he live long," he said of the new president. "I ask God to shield him against his protectors," an apparent reference to Damascus.

Hrawi, 64, an agricultural engineer and former Cabinet minister who has been considered a moderate during his 17 years in Parliament, won the endorsement of 47 of the 52 deputies who cast ballots Friday night. Five deputies cast blank ballots.

He was sworn in immediately and vowed to follow the course set by Mouawad, who died along with 23 others Wednesday when a massive bomb exploded near an independence day motorcade in Muslim West Beirut.

"I promise the nation to follow the same path that martyred President Mouawad had planned for national unity," Hrawi said. "No gun will be raised, except the legitimate gun. . . . We call for a life of dignity instead of mass suicide."

The new president also pledged to uphold the peace plan endorsed by Parliament in Taif, Saudi Arabia, last month, which calls for the historically dominant Christians to give up much of their political power to the growing Muslim majority.

"The agreement is a comprehensive project for salvation to put a permanent end to the suffering, the tears and the pain and to stop the bloodshed which is increasing day after day," he said.

Hrawi's speedy election brought with it some hope for survival of the peace plan, which has been endorsed by governments throughout the world as the last hope for ending the 14 years of sectarian war. Nearly 150,000 people have died in the strife, and nearly all of Lebanon's institutions, including any semblance of a unified national government, have been destroyed.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the election and said it "applaud(s) the courage" of the legislators who defied threats of violent reprisals and met Friday night to elect a new leader.

"We hope that this swift action by Lebanon's Parliament ensures that the death of President Mouawad will only make the country's government more determined to carry out a program of reform leading to national reconciliation," the department said.

In a pointed reference to Aoun, the statement added: "We call once again on all Lebanese, including the armed forces, to unite behind President Hrawi to work for reconciliation, not division; for reunification, not partition, and for a better future, not a continuation of the bitter past."

Aoun so far has shown no signs of relinquishing control of the provisional Christian government he controls in East Beirut, which until now has shared power with a rival Muslim government headed by Prime Minister Salim Hoss.

Encamped in the fortress of the presidential palace, Aoun has refused to endorse the Taif agreement or any new government created under it because of the pact's failure to assure an immediate withdrawal of the 40,000 Syrian troops that still control much of Lebanon.

Aoun's six-month-long "war of liberation" that began last spring triggered some of the most bloody fighting of the civil war--and Aoun and his supporters have vowed not to give up the fight as long as Syria remains. Muslim politicians and some less-radical Christian legislators have said they recognize a need for Syria to remain in Lebanon at least for a time as a stabilizing force, until the new government can regain control of all Lebanese territory.

The standoff has made it impossible for the Parliament to convene in its regular headquarters on the dividing line between the Muslim and Christian sectors. Deputies were forced earlier this month, when Mouawad was elected, and again Friday, to travel to a heavily fortified location in eastern Lebanon to conduct their deliberations.

However, Christian deputies were reported late Friday to be meeting to discuss how to handle Aoun. Both the Muslim radio station, Voice of the Nation, and Bush Administration officials reported that the new Cabinet under Hrawi is expected to appoint a new army commander to replace him.

But State Department analysts conceded that Aoun may contest the appointment of a replacement, and Administration officials feared that Aoun's response could trigger new clashes.

Syria, which on Thursday had hinted of possible moves to force Aoun out, on Friday welcomed the election of Hrawi, one of the candidates Syria had favored, and did not discuss the embattled Christian army commander.

"I see in your election an honor to the soul of the late President Mouawad, who was determined to end Lebanon's torment," Syrian President Hafez Assad said in a telegram of congratulations to the new leader.

Hrawi was first elected to Parliament in 1972, representing the community of Zahleh in the eastern Bekaa Valley, an area now well within Syria's realm of influence. He served as minister of public works from 1980 to 1982.

His first official duty will be to preside over the funeral today of his predecessor, elected Lebanon's 9th president only on Nov. 5.

Earlier Friday, 10,000 mourners, many of them weeping and shouting bitterly, were waiting in Mouawad's hometown of Zgorta when his body and those of six of his bodyguards arrived from Beirut.

Times staff writer Robin Wright, in Washington, contributed to this story.

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