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Published:May 25th, 2008 08:26 EST
Army Chief elected president in Lebanon

Army Chief elected president in Lebanon

By SOP newswire

Lebanon`s parliament has elected the country`s new president Sunday, filling a post left vacant since November by a volatile political crisis.  Army chief General Michel Suleiman won 118 votes. Six representatives abstained.

The election of the consensus candidate, army chief General Michel Suleiman, is part of an Arab-brokered deal to ease the 18-month-long political stalemate.

Shortly after the vote, bands played, fireworks exploded and people waved Lebanese flags in celebration in the streets of the capital, Beirut.

Lebanon`s parliament had tried 19 times to elect a new head of state after pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud`s term ended in November.

But each vote was postponed by political bickering between Lebanon`s western-backed ruling coalition and pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led opposition.

The disagreement over the composition of a new government spiraled into deadly street fighting earlier this month, when Hezbollah fighters took over parts of Beirut.

Arab mediators helped the political rivals reach an agreement last week on the election of a new president, electoral law and unity government.

The agreement gives the opposition veto power in the government and does not require Hezbollah fighters to disarm.

Political analysts are warning the new coalition government, which will rule by consensus, will face serious challenges over issues like Lebanon`s relationship with Syria and Hezbollah`s possession of weapons.

Lebanon`s newly elected president, General Suleiman, is considered a unifying figure in a country still recovering from civil war.

The 59-year-old Maronite Christian has been the commander of Lebanon`s armed forces since 1998, eight years after Lebanon`s 15-year civil war ended.

In that position, he has earned the public`s respect by keeping the army united and neutral in times of sectarian conflict between supporters of Lebanon`s pro-Western government and Syrian-backed opposition.

Mr. Suleiman established his image as a neutral leader when he refused to deploy the army to crush huge demonstrations that exploded after the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The demonstrations led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Mr. Suleiman gained further praise when he deployed the army to push out Islamist militants from a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon last year.

Some critics expressed anger with the army for standing by while, earlier this month, Hezbollah gunmen clashed with pro-government forces in Beirut.  But Mr. Suleiman defended his decision, saying the army should ignore politics and "listen to the call of duty."

The new president was born in the northern coastal town of Amchit.  He is a married father of three, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics and administrative sciences from Lebanese University.  He speaks both French and English.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.