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Lebanon's President Leaves Post

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Lebanon's President Leaves Post

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Lebanon's President Leaves Post

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud, who has been backed by Syria, stepped down last night after nine years in office, and the country now has no president because rival factions in parliament have been unable to come up with a compromise candidate. With tensions rising, soldiers have been deployed in the capital to keep the peace.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Beirut.

IVAN WATSON: At the stroke of midnight on Friday, Emile Lahoud left the presidential palace for the last time, accompanied by a military brass band and honor guard in dress uniform.

(Soundbite of band playing)

WATSON: Before climbing into his motorcade, Lahoud fired a partying shot at his Western-backed political opponent, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who still remains in power with a Cabinet of ministers.

President EMILE LAHOUD (Lebanon): (Through translator) I hope there will be a consensual president for all of Lebanon. I hope this happens as soon as possible because this Cabinet is unconstitutional; it's not legitimate and not representative. Even if Bush and America and the whole world say it is constitutional, it isn't and they all know that.

WATSON: Lahoud's last decree before stepping down was to declare a state of emergency and to hand over all security responsibilities to the Lebanese military. In a sign of the potentially dangerous power vacuum now facing this small country, Prime Minister Siniora responded by saying that the outgoing president had no constitutional authority to take such decisions.

Washington stepped into the fray with a State Department press release asserting that Siniora's Cabinet would, quote, "temporarily assume executive powers and responsibilities until a new president is elected by the Lebanese parliament."

But Lebanese lawmakers have been unable to agree on a compromised candidate for president. At a parliamentary session yesterday, which was mobbed by reporters, the presidential election was delayed yet again for another week.

(Soundbite of crowd)

WATSON: The parliament is bitterly divided between a Western-backed coalition, which has a slim majority after four of its members were assassinated, and an opposition bloc led by Syria and Iran's ally, Hezbollah.

At Friday's session, Hezbollah parliament member Nawar al-Sahali said his party was still open to negotiation.

Mr. NAWAR AL-SAHALI (Hezbollah Parliament Member): The door is not closed but if we do not have any other choice, we must arrive to a consensus so our president will be accepted by a big part of the Lebanese parties and the opposition and the majority.

WATSON: Both sides can negotiate with good will right now?

Mr. AL-SAHALI: I think so because the future of Lebanon is in question; there's a big question mark. I don't think anybody wants to go to a big problem or chaos.

WATSON: The Western-backed faction has threatened to use its small majority to unilaterally elect its own candidate for president. Opposition leaders say this would be tantamount to an act of war.

Ahmed Fatfat, a parliament member from the Western-backed coalition says that for now, he and his colleagues will avoid taking this step.

Mr. AHMED FATFAT (Interior Minister, Lebanon): We don't want to go to confrontation now. We prefer if we can have a solution, but if not, we will be obliged to do it.

WATSON: This morning, Lebanese awoke to a country without a president, but on the streets of Beirut, it appeared to be life almost as usual - locals jogged along the seaside and went shopping at a farmer's market. Large numbers of soldiers and police backed by jeeps and tanks have been deployed around the city to keep political tensions from erupting in the violence in the streets.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Beirut.

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