Lebanon speaker says may delay presidential vote

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BEIRUT, Nov 6 (Reuters) Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri may delay a parliamentary vote for a new president if rival factions fail to agree on a candidate, a newspaper quoted him today as saying.

Postponed twice, the new session to elect a president is set for November 12. But there are fears that it will not go ahead, bringing Lebanon, which is embroiled in its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, closer to a chaos.

Speaking to As-Safir newspaper, Berri said he might bring forward the date of the session if the anti-Syrian ruling majority and the opposition, led by pro-Syrian Hezbollah, managed to agree on a candidate.

''Or if we continue searching, I may postpone the session for a few days,'' he said.

Political sources say little progress is being made in the frantic, 11th-hour negotiations amid visibly growing tensions in the country with rival groups arming for conflict.

Electing a president is seen as vital towards resolving a year-old crisis in which the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is at loggerheads with the opposition.

Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term expires on November 23, and there are fears that if the November 12 session does not go ahead, it will become much less likely for a new president to be elected in the final 10 days of his term.

Opposition MPs first boycotted parliament on September 25 to prevent a two-thirds quorum and keep anti-Syrian factions, which have a slim majority, from electing a president who they fear might tout a US agenda.

Siniora's government wants a president who will back a trial of the suspected killers of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, and work on disarming Hezbollah, the only group to stay armed after the civil war.

Seven anti-Syrian figures have been killed since Hariri's assassination in 2005, most recently Christian MP Antoine Ghanem in September.

Leading Lebanese anti-Syrians blame Damascus for the killings, a charge it has consistently denied.

Botrous Harb, one of two presidential candidates endorsed by the anti-Syrian ruling coalition known as March 14, said last week his group was considering electing a president unilaterally outside parliament using an absolute majority.

But Hezbollah deputy chief Sheikh Naim Kassem said in a television interview yesterday that electing a president by less than a two-third quorum or even handing over presidential powers to Siniora's government would plunge Lebanon deeper into crisis.

Reuters SS GC1654

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