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Sun 16 Dec 2007 05:24 PM

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Pressure mounts on Lebanon to elect president

West presses politicians to end bickering on eve of new presidential vote in parliament.

Western countries on Sunday pressed bickering Lebanese politicians to finally set aside their differences and fill the vacant presidency on the eve of a new vote in parliament, the ninth since September.

"The US believes that it is time now to elect a new president," said David Welch, the US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

"There is no reason for any further delay," Welch said after meeting with Lebanese political leaders and the head of the Christian Maronite church from which presidents are drawn.

"We understand that Lebanon has done the most difficult work of finding a candidate who represents the consensus," Welch said on Saturday in reference the frontrunner, army chief General Michel Sleiman.

He met with Sleiman on Sunday and reiterated the election must go ahead, the army said, even as both members of the opposition and the ruling majority said Monday's session was likely to be postponed.

"There will be no election tomorrow [Monday]," MP Fares Suwaid of the majority told newswire AFP, adding that he expects parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a key opposition figure, to announce a new postponement.

Lebanon's president is elected in parliament.

Simon Abi Ramia, an adviser to Christian opposition leader General Michel Aoun, said Monday's session was "very unlikely" to go ahead as no agreement had yet been reached on a mechanism to amend the constitution.

The country has been left without a president since Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term on November 23 without a successor in place, triggering the country's worst crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

The Western-backed government of prime minister Fuad Siniora and the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran, have however agreed to elect Sleiman to succeed Lahoud.

But they are at loggerheads over how to amend the constitution to allow a public servant to become president and on the make-up of the future government.

France, the former colonial power in Lebanon which has been heavily involved in international mediation efforts, has warned the feuding factions and their foreign sponsors that time is running out for a solution.

"Monday is really the last chance, and France calls on all parties, inside and outside, to ensure that Lebanon can have a president," president Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday.

"Those [who] would take the risk of killing off that chance would cut themselves off from a number of countries, first among them France," said Sarkozy, who is due to meet US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice on Monday.

MP Suwaid charged that Damascus through its allies in Lebanon's opposition camp was blocking the election "until it gets something in return from the US".

On Thursday, Sarkozy said he would be willing to visit Damascus if a consensus candidate was elected president and the string of assassinations in Lebanon ended.

Senior army commander Brigadier General Francois El-Hajj, tipped to become army chief if Sleiman is elected president, was assassinated in a car bombing on Wednesday.

Even before the latest killing, Lebanese media predicted that a new president is unlikely to be elected before the end of the year or even March because of the continued standoff between the pro- and anti-Syrian camps.