Political Crisis Deepens in Lebanon

The Associated Press
Friday, November 23, 2007; 11:26 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Lebanon's political tumult intensified as President Emile Lahoud said the country is in a "state of emergency" and handed security powers to the army before he left office late Friday without a successor. The rival, pro-Western Cabinet rejected the declaration.

Lahoud's final announcement created new confusion in an already unsettled situation, which many Lebanese fear could explode into violence between supporters of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's Western-backed government and the pro-Syria opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime during nine years in office, was a long-sought goal of the government installed by parliament's anti-Syria majority, which has been trying to put one of its own in the presidency.

Hezbollah and other opposition groups have blocked legislators from electing a new president by boycotting ballot sessions, leaving parliament without the required quorum.

The fight has put Lebanon into dangerous, unknown territory: Both sides are locked in bitter recriminations, accusing the other of breaking the constitution, and they are nowhere near a compromise on a candidate to become head of state.

The army command refused to comment on the developments. The military, under its widely respected chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, has sought to remain neutral in the political chaos, and Lahoud's statement did not give it political powers.

The capital was calm, and all sides were vowing to avoid violence. Even before the president's vague announcement, the military was in place to guard against the two sides' supporters taking the conflict to the streets. On alert for days, hundreds of soldiers stood with tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps in the area around the downtown parliament building as well as on roads leading into Beirut.

Lahoud stepped down when his term expired at midnight, smiling as he reviewed an honor guard on the way out of the presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda. "My conscience is clear," he told reporters. "Lebanon is still well."

Before getting into his car to go, he blasted Saniora's government, calling it "illegitimate and unconstitutional. They know that, even if (President) Bush said otherwise."

In the capital, some 2,000 government supporters gathered in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood cheered his departure, setting off fireworks, beating drums and shouting, "Lahoud Out!"

His departure left the presidency vacant after parliament failed again to convene earlier Friday to vote on a successor.

Lahoud's vaguely worded final statement, two hours before midnight, wasn't a formal declaration of a state of emergency, but he enflamed tempers with his reference to a "state of emergency" in Lebanon.

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