BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Two days before Lebanon’s parliament meets to pick the army chief as head of state, a U.S. envoy said on Saturday the country should hold the vote which has been delayed repeatedly by pro- and anti-Syrian factions.
Doubts still remain over whether Monday’s session will take place for a vote that has been delayed eight times already. “It is time for this process to be completed. There is no reason for any further delay,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch told reporters after meeting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an opposition leader. “We believe that the parliament should meet, the members of parliament need to fulfil their duty to go and vote,” he said.
Deputies from the Hezbollah-led opposition have torpedoed previous attempts to secure a two-thirds quorum in parliament for a presidential vote. They are determined to stop the Western-backed ruling coalition, which has a slim majority in the chamber, from electing one of its own candidates.
Two weeks ago, both sides agreed in principle to elect the army commander, General Michel Suleiman, to replace pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, whose term expired on Nov. 23. “We understand that Lebanon has done the most difficult work of finding a candidate who represents a consensus. It’s not our job, the United States, to find a president of Lebanon, it’s Lebanon’s job,” Welch said.
Differences on how to amend the constitution to permit a top public servant like Suleiman to run for office are unresolved.
Welch earlier met Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and was also due to meet Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Arab and Western nations have pressed the Western-backed coalition and the opposition to settle their disputes and avoid a protracted vacuum that could further destabilise Lebanon.
Tensions worsened after the assassination on Wednesday of Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj, who was tipped to become the next army chief after Suleiman becomes president.
France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, has led an intensive mediation drive to resolve the crisis. French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the Lebanese parliament to seize its “last chance” on Monday to elect a president.
The United States has been less directly involved in mediation efforts and has kept up a stream of criticism against Syria, which it accuses of meddling in Lebanon’s affairs.
Electing Suleiman as president, who must be a Maronite in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, would help defuse the country’s worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Suleiman, 59, was appointed army chief in 1998 when Syria still dominated Lebanon. He is on good terms with Hezbollah, a powerful military-political group backed by Syria and Iran.