Popular general rises to Lebanon's presidency

Times Staff Writer

Backed by most of Lebanon's major communities and their international patrons, former army Chief of Staff Michel Suleiman ascended to the presidency of this volatile Mediterranean country Sunday.

The 60-year-old Maronite Christian general took the oath of office amid high hopes that he would help heal the festering political rift between the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government and the opposition, led by Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite militant and political movement.

Suleiman's election by lawmakers, viewed as a temporary fix to a months-long political crisis, came days after Hezbollah gunmen stormed West Beirut and subsequently won an agreement that the militia remain armed and have enough Cabinet seats to veto major government decisions.

Many hope, however, that Suleiman, with both strong ties to Hezbollah and the support of the Western-leaning March 14 movement, will be able to pull the country together.

"I call on you all, political forces and citizens, to build a Lebanon we all agree on, setting the interests of Lebanon above our individual interests," he told lawmakers and dignitaries in a televised address. "We paid a dear price for our national unity. Let's preserve it."

Present in the parliamentary chamber were officials representing the major foreign powers that have tried to resolve the crisis, including a delegation of U.S. lawmakers and the foreign ministers of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and France. All consider Lebanon part of their cultural, economic and political sphere of influence.

Hezbollah and its allies crippled the government by pulling out of the Cabinet and setting up protest tents around the capital in late 2006. They demanded veto power over government decisions. The crisis deepened in November when President Emile Lahoud's term expired without a successor. Hezbollah's audacious military takeover of West Beirut this month, after a Cabinet decision that scrutinized the group's telecommunications and intelligence assets, ultimately forced the government to grant it the veto power it coveted.

The situation in Lebanon exacerbated already smoldering tensions between Washington and Tehran. But with Suleiman's ascent comes a rare example of detente. Both the U.S. and Iran have been fighting for influence over Lebanon through political proxies, but both backed Suleiman for president -- a largely ceremonial position but key to the functioning of the government.

The vote for Suleiman could result in a diplomatic breakthrough between Syria and Lebanon. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, sitting next to his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, was the first Damascus official to visit Lebanon since his country's troops were forced to vacate under international pressure in 2005.

Lebanese of all political and religious stripes praised Suleiman's rise. Giant portraits of the popular general loomed over squares in Christian as well as Muslim quarters in cities and the countryside. Since the deal in Qatar, share prices for Solidere, the firm that developed the city's elegant downtown, have jumped 30% while black-market prices for weapons have collapsed.

"It's like a big dream come true," said Antonie Lahoud, deputy mayor of the coastal town of Amchit, Suleiman's birthplace. "It's a wedding ceremony for Lebanon."

The upbeat mood was a stunning contrast to the gloomy national sentiment less than a week ago, after Hezbollah's takeover set off political and sectarian clashes that pushed the country toward civil war. Six days of talks in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar ultimately produced Wednesday's agreement, in what many analysts described as a defeat for forces friendly to the U.S.

Under Lebanon's power-sharing system, a Christian serves as president while a Sunni serves as the more powerful prime minister and a Shiite as head of parliament. Suleiman must now confer with parliament to appoint a Cabinet that will last until parliamentary elections next year.

The agreement swept under the rug what many analysts consider the underlying causes of Lebanon's strife, including a rising Shiite population with increasing political clout. It also failed to mention Hezbollah's status as an armed political force sometimes overshadowing the power of the Lebanese state in its stated mission to confront Israeli and U.S. supremacy over the region.

Suleiman is from a prominent Christian family that has produced powerful officials, including an ambassador and a governor.

In the army, Suleiman served as a field commander who managed to refrain from taking sides in Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. He earned plaudits for holding the army together as it defeated Al Qaeda-inspired rebels in northern Lebanon last summer.

But Suleiman was also widely criticized by pro-government politicians for failing to confront Hezbollah during its recent offensive. And March 14 supporters, despite their apparent enthusiasm, whisper that he may be too close to Syria, which dominated Lebanon's domestic politics until 2005. He has frequently adopted the rhetoric of Hezbollah in describing the importance of Lebanon's "resistance" to Israel.

Still, Suleiman has displayed flashes of independence. He revived the practice of sending officers to the U.S. and Europe for advanced training instead of to Syria. And he refused to crush the 2005 demonstrations that hastened the withdrawal of Syrian forces.

"We say that every person is a child of his environment," said Bahjat Lahoud, a cousin of Suleiman and a retired diplomat. "Amchit was never a sectarian town. It was never a part of Lebanon's wars."



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