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Sun 25 May 2008 09:04 AM

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Lebanon prepares to elect president

Months of feuding set to end as parliament convenes to elect army chief Michel Sleiman president.

The Lebanese parliament convenes on Sunday to elect army chief Michel Sleiman as president in a first step towards defusing an often deadly 18-month standoff between feuding political factions.

Lawmakers will gather at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) to cast their votes at a long-awaited parliamentary session due to be attended by 200 invited guests including Arab and Western dignitaries.

The main challenge for Sleiman, 59, will be to impose himself as a neutral figure and reconcile the Western-backed parliamentary majority and the opposition, which is backed by Iran and Syria.

Bickering between the two camps had left the presidency vacant since Emile Lahoud's term ended in November, and 19 previous attempts to get lawmakers together to elect a successor failed.

Last Wednesday, the rivals finally agreed to elect Sleiman and form a national unity government, in which the opposition has veto power, after five days of intense talks brokered by the Arab League in the Qatari capital.

The Doha talks came after 65 people were killed in fierce sectarian battles earlier this month between supporters of the Hezbollah-led opposition and pro-government forces.

It was the deadliest internal political violence since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war and threatened to ignite an all-out conflict, as Hezbollah staged a spectacular takeover of mainly Sunni Muslim west Beirut.

Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa and a US congressional delegation are due to attend the election.

The foreign ministers of Syria, Iran and France are also among the 200 dignitaries invited to witness the event, Ali Hamdan, spokesman for parliament speaker Nabih Berri, told newswire AFP.

The US delegation will be headed by Representative Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat of Lebanese origin, Hamdan said.

In nearly 10 years at the helm of the army, Sleiman managed to stay out of the political storm. But as president he will have to tread a fine line to keep the peace with the same neutrality.

"I cannot save the country on my own," he told local media this week. "This mission requires the efforts of all. Security is not achieved by force but joint political will."

Sleiman has been accused by some of being a supporter of Syria, Lebanon's neighbour and former powerbroker. His predecessor Lahoud was pro-Syrian.

After the new head of state is sworn in, the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora will resign in line with the constitution.

On the eve of the vote Siniora, 64, told AFP he was satisfied with the Doha accord and ready to step down.

"I am satisfied that this is a deal for which we all gave in for the sake of the country," he said.

"I served for three years, and I believe it is somehow time for a change."

Lebanon has been mired in political paralysis since November 2006 when six opposition ministers quit the Siniora cabinet in a bid to gain more representation.

A career soldier, Sleiman joined the army in 1967. He was appointed military chief in December 1998. He is married and has three children.

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