May 26, 2008


Michel Suleiman sworn in as president of Lebanon: The former army chief of staff takes over a country torn between U.S.-Saudi support and Hezbollah (Borzou Daragahi, 5/26/08, Los Angeles Times)

Both the U.S. and Iran have been fighting for influence over Lebanon through political proxies, but both backed Suleiman for president -- a largely ceremonial position but key to the functioning of the government.

The vote for Suleiman could result in a diplomatic breakthrough between Syria and Lebanon. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, sitting next to his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, was the first Damascus official to visit Lebanon since his country's troops were forced to vacate under international pressure in 2005.

Lebanese of all political and religious stripes praised Suleiman's rise. Giant portraits of the popular general loomed over squares in Christian as well as Muslim quarters in cities and the countryside. Since the deal in Qatar, share prices for Solidere, the firm that developed the city's elegant downtown, have jumped 30% while black-market prices for weapons have collapsed.

"It's like a big dream come true," said Antonie Lahoud, deputy mayor of the coastal town of Amchit, Suleiman's birthplace. "It's a wedding ceremony for Lebanon."

The upbeat mood was a stunning contrast to the gloomy national sentiment less than a week ago, after Hezbollah's takeover set off political and sectarian clashes that pushed the country toward civil war. Six days of talks in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar ultimately produced Wednesday's agreement, in what many analysts described as a defeat for forces friendly to the U.S.

Under Lebanon's power-sharing system, a Christian serves as president while a Sunni serves as the more powerful prime minister and a Shiite as head of parliament. Suleiman must now confer with parliament to appoint a Cabinet that will last until parliamentary elections next year.

The agreement swept under the rug what many analysts consider the underlying causes of Lebanon's strife, including a rising Shiite population with increasing political clout. It also failed to mention Hezbollah's status as an armed political force sometimes overshadowing the power of the Lebanese state in its stated mission to confront Israeli and U.S. supremacy over the region.

General Takes Office As President Of Lebanon: Vote Marks Symbolic End Of Government's Crisis (Anthony Shadid and Alia Ibrahim, 5/26/08, Washington Post)
Often heard in Lebanon, though, is the idea that the country has embarked on a truce, and no more. The question of Hezbollah's arsenal remains pressing for government supporters, who tried to address the issue in the Qatar talks. Suleiman is expected to lead a dialogue over the issue with rival leaders.

The cabinet will remain in power through next summer, when parliamentary elections are expected to again enshrine in power the same leaders, some of them veterans of the civil war with almost-feudal influence over their followers.

Suleiman, 59, was appointed army commander in 1998, when Syria still exercised tutelage over Lebanon. He rose through the ranks of an army that, particularly in the 1990s, worked closely with Syria and Hezbollah, which fought a guerrilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon until its withdrawal in 2000. He emerged as a candidate of the opposition, then drew on the backing of government supporters to fill a post vacant since the term of Emile Lahoud, a Syrian ally and former general, ended in November.

Both sides had their grievances with Suleiman: The opposition was critical of the military for shooting on protesters in January; government supporters were angry at what they saw as the military's acquiescence in allowing fighters of Hezbollah and its allies to enter predominantly Muslim West Beirut this month, where they routed government-backed militiamen in hours, forcing the government into the eventual compromise.

"The gun should only be pointed against the enemy," Suleiman said. "We will not allow it another direction."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 26, 2008 8:50 AM
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