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Suleiman backed for Lebanese presidency

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Lebanon's Western-backed governing majority has announced that it will back army chief General Michel Suleiman as a compromise candidate for the vacant presidency.


Lebanon's Western-backed governing majority announced on Sunday that it would accept army chief General Michel Suleiman as a compromise candidate for the vacant presidency, clearing the way to an end to a year-old stand-off with the opposition.

The coalition "announces that it is going back on its initial opposition to an amendment to the constitution and... is supporting the candidacy of General Michel Suleiman for president," said a statement read by former president Amin Gemayel, a leading Christian coalition politician.

The change of policy was intended to "put an end to the vacancy in the presidency" since pro-Syrian head of state Emile Lahoud stepped down last month without a successor in place, Gemayel said in the statement broadcast by Lebanese televisions.

Suleiman's candidacy requires a change to the constitution as Article 49 bars public servants from acceding to the presidency within two years of stepping down.

Coalition politicians had expressed opposition to any new change to the  constitution after their regional foe Syria pushed through an amendment in 2004 paving the way for a three-year extension to Lahoud's term of office.

"We call for the initiation of the necessary constitutional steps," said Gemayel, urging massive support for the compromise move after repeated abortive sessions of parliament to elect a new president amid deadlock between the government and the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition.

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, who had been the opposition's sole candidate for the presidency, said he too would throw his weight behind Suleiman, but only if he agreed to step down when the next parliamentary elections are held in 2009 rather than serving a full term until 2013.

Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which fought last year's devastating war with Israel and has led the opposition in its standoff with the government, has made its backing for Suleiman conditional on Aoun's endorsement.

The support for Sleiman from all sides -- albeit with some conditions -- finally raises the prospect of an end to Lebanon's protracted political crisis which has dragged on since six pro-Syrian ministers quit the cabinet in November last year.

The standoff has been widely seen as a reflection of the broader conflict between the two sides' foreign sponsors -- the United States and its main Arab ally Saudi Arabia in the case of the government and Syria and its regional ally Iran in the case of the opposition.

Suleiman, 59, has served as army chief since 1998. His appointment came at a time when neighbouring Syria still dominated Lebanese affairs and some have accused him of being a Damascus ally.

But through the year-long crisis gripping Lebanon he has remained neutral and repeatedly called on the army to keep out of politics.

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