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Lebanon in political deadlock over selecting a new president

Times Staff Writer

Lebanon this week faces its worst political crisis since its 15-year civil war, with leaders unable to come up with a compromise selection for president after the current one’s term expires Saturday.

Lawmakers are scheduled to convene Wednesday to either vote on a president, by tradition drawn from the country’s Maronite Christian community, or rubber-stamp one chosen behind closed doors by leaders of Lebanon’s religious groups.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who is mediating among the various factions in Beirut, said Monday that he was “less optimistic” than last week that a compromise candidate would emerge.

“I’m amazed, France is amazed, that something is stuck, something is blocked, something is derailed, and I would like everyone to assume their responsibilities,” a visibly angry Kouch- ner told reporters after emerging from closed-door talks with leading Lebanese politicians.

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He warned reporters that “France will let the whole world know who is responsible” for blocking steps to untangle the Lebanese political deadlock.

Many fear that if the deadline passes without agreement, the two opposing camps, one pro-U.S. and the other backed by Iran and Syria, could declare their own cabinets and the country could descend into the type of violence and chaos that afflicted it during the lengthy civil war between and within its kaleidoscope of religious groups.

That conflict finally ended after Syrian troops occupied the country and imposed order in October 1990. Spurred on by Washington and Paris, Western-leaning Lebanese pressured the Syrians out of Lebanon after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, leader of the country’s Sunni Muslims, in a Beirut bombing.

Many Lebanese blame Syrian security officials for Hariri’s death and a subsequent string of assassinations. Grouping themselves under the name of March 14, they have demanded a further investigation into the killings. After the 2006 summer war between the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia and Israel, March 14 and its U.S. and French backers also stepped up demands that the Shiite Muslim militia disarm, as called for by the United Nations.

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Instead, Hezbollah, which represents the country’s largest religious constituency, began demanding a larger share of political power. It allied with Maronite Christian leader Michel Aoun, a former general who aspires to the presidency, to drive a wedge within the Christian community.

The division between Aoun’s supporters and the March 14-aligned Christian establishment has raised the specter of violence within the community, which during the civil war fought within itself as well as against Shiites, Sunni Muslims, Druze and Palestinians.

Kouchner last week asked the spiritual leader of the Maronites, Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, to come up with a list of presidential contenders in a bid to break the deadlock.

“We’re in a delicate phase,” said a European diplomat close to the negotiations. “We’re getting to the core of the problem, which is the Christian situation.”

Complicating the political equation even further, foreign backers of the various factions see in the Lebanese political fight a struggle for regional domination, Beirut as a front line in the cold war between the U.S. and the West on one side and Iran and Syria on the other.

“The U.S. regards March 14 as a group that would carry on its regional agenda in the Middle East,” said one Lebanese politician close to parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an opposition figure allied with Hezbollah. He spoke on condition he not be named.

As the government’s expiration date has neared, both sides have dug in their heels.

In a fiery speech this month, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said his powerful militia, whose war with Israel devastated much of southern Lebanon, would not give up its weapons regardless of who ran the Lebanese government. A U.N. Security Council resolution demands the disarming of all nongovernmental groups in Lebanon.

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Under Lebanon’s complicated political setup, government positions are handed out to loyalists of the political groups representing the country’s various religious communities according to a formula, with the prime minister a Sunni, the head of parliament a Shiite and the president a Christian.

The March 14 coalition, led by Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, has threatened to choose a president itself and form a government with its slim majority rather than continue seeking consensus. That position has been publicly endorsed as constitutional by U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman.

“We can do it by simple majority come Nov. 22,” said Nassib Lahoud, a March 14 lawmaker and presidential contender who is a cousin of outgoing pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. “It’s a decision we will weigh at the time after exhausting all other attempts at compromise.”

Several politicians in the March 14 coalition have publicly decried the idea of pushing through a government with a simple majority, and the pro-U.S. bloc may not have enough votes to approve a president without an OK from the opposition.

Iran is believed to want Hezbollah to save its weapons arsenal and energies for confronting Israel rather than taking on other Lebanese in a civil war over power-sharing arrangements.

The crisis has again shown the weakness of Lebanon’s government and the country’s susceptibility to foreign influence.

“The state does not fulfill its duties and allows foreign forces to come in and build institutions, whether for Shiites, Sunnis or Christians,” said Talal Artissi, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University. “The state cannot wake up one day and say, ‘How can the West interfere? How can Iran interfere?’ ”

daragahi@latimes.com

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