Lebanon election set for delay, rivals to talk

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BEIRUT, Sep 25 (Reuters) Thousands of Lebanese troops tightened security around parliament in Beirut today but a session called to elect a new president was set to be postponed after the opposition vowed to boycott it.

Damascus-backed Hezbollah and its allies have said their deputies will stay away from the presidential election in parliament to block the anti-Syrian majority from choosing a new head of state.

The session that was supposed to be a vote to pick a replacement for pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, whose term ends on November 23, comes at a time of deep political division in Lebanon, just days after the assassination of an anti-Syrian MP who was a member of the majority March 14 coalition.

''September 25: The heart of Beirut trembles,'' the frontpage headline of the pro-opposition al-Akhbar newspaper said, reflecting anxiety among ordinary Lebanese.

''The whole March 14 will attend (the session)... to reaffirm our commitment to elect a president and to reject a vacuum,'' anti-Syrian MP Fouad al-Saad told Voice of Lebanon radio.

The opposition will not attend, meaning a two-thirds quorum will not be achieved. The opposition wants deal on a consensus candidate for the presidency before its MPs will attend.

''Today we start the stage of serious work to reach consensus and the election of a new president,'' opposition MP Farid al-Khazen said. Parliament has until Lahoud's term ends to elect a successor.

SEARCH FOR CONSENSUS Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a close Damascus ally and leading member of the opposition, is due to go to his office in the chamber, giving him the chance to meet leaders of the anti-Syrian governing coalition, or March 14 movement.

Berri is set to call another election in October.

''I'd like to reassure the Lebanese that the climate is not as grim as everyone imagines,'' he said on Monday after talks with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. ''There will be a president for Lebanon before November 24 with the consensus of all the Lebanese, God willing,'' he said.

Majority leader Saad al-Hariri said the session was a chance to ''open the door to a solution and dialogue''.

The March 14 coalition had hoped to elect a figure from their own ranks in the first presidential election since Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Seven other anti-Syrian figures have been killed since the Hariri assassination, including MP Antoine Ghanem who died last week in a car bomb attack which reduced March 14's representation in parliament to 68 in the 128-seat assembly.

Security was tight today around parliament building, just a short walk from a street encampment set up by the opposition in December as part of a campaign against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's Western-backed government.

Hundreds of troops and police lined the streets leading to parliament to provide safe passage for officials, while large numbers deployed across central Beirut, blocking off roads and clearing cars from street sides.

The political crisis is Lebanon's worst since the civil war and in January spilled into street clashes that recalled the 1975-1990 conflict. Failure to agree on a president could result in two governments - a scenario which observers say would lay the ground for a new conflict and split the army.

Several Lebanese leaders have voiced concern over reports that some factions have been arming and training activists.

(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki) REUTERS ARB KP1215

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