Lebanon presidential vote seen delayed by crisis

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BEIRUT, Sep 23 (Reuters) A Lebanese presidential election scheduled for this week will be postponed until October because rival leaders have yet to agree on a compromise candidate to replace the pro-Syrian incumbent, political sources say.

Parliament has been called on Tuesday to elect a successor to President Emile Lahoud but the vote cannot take place then without agreement on a figure acceptable to both anti-Syrian leaders and their Damascus-backed rivals.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a close ally of Syria, is expected to call another session in October, giving the sides more time to reach a deal which would help end Lebanon's worst political conflict since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Lahoud's term expires on Nov. 23.

Anti-Syrian lawmakers, their slim majority reduced by the killing of Christian MP Antoine Ghanem last week, have said they will show up on Tuesday, when security around parliament in central Beirut is expected to be extremely tight.

But a two-thirds quorum needed for the vote will not be met without the opposition.

Led by Shi'ite Muslim factions including the Syrian-backed Hezbollah, the opposition wants a deal on a candidate in order to secure their attendance at the first presidential election since the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005.

The anti-Syrian coalition, which already controls the cabinet, had hoped the election would be a chance to replace Lahoud with a president from their ranks. Lahoud's term was controversially extended at Syria's behest in 2004.

The majority's favourite candidate is 62-year-old Nassib Lahoud.

The opposition backs Michel Aoun, leader of the largest Christian bloc in parliament and an ally of Hezbollah and Berri's Amal movement -- another Shi'ite faction.

But neither would be acceptable to both sides. Army chief Michel Suleiman and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh are seen as possible compromise candidates.

Berri and majority leader Saad al-Hariri, Lebanon's most powerful Sunni Muslim leader, have resumed contacts as part of efforts to secure a deal over the presidency.

But the dialogue has yet to make headway over the fate of a post which is reserved for a Maronite Christian in Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system.

The UN Security Council last week called for the presidential election to be held on time and without foreign interference. It strongly condemned the killing of Ghanem -- the seventh anti-Syrian figure to be killed since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, an influential member of the anti-Syrian coalition, said in an interview he expected more lawmakers to be killed by ''Syria and its allies'' with the aim of putting ''another puppet like Lahoud as president''.

One of the most fierce critics of Syria, Jumblatt was speaking to Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Damascus has consistently denied any role in political assassinations in Lebanon.

Reuters SKB GC1657

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