BEIRUT, Nov 24 (Reuters) Lebanon stepped into uncharted territory today when time ran out on attempts to find a new president before Emile Lahoud's mandate expired.
Lahoud, a pro-Syrian retired general in power for nine years, left the presidential palace vacant at midnight (0330 IST) after parliament failed to find a successor acceptable to both sides in a bitter dispute with international ramifications.
Speaking in the palace driveway before riding off in a motorcade to his nearby private home, Lahoud said his conscience was clear and Lebanon was well.
The Lebanese must choose a consensus president quickly because the existing cabinet, which is backed by the United States and Europe, was illegitimate, he said.
''If that doesn't happen, the price for Lebanon will be high. I hope we can get there as quickly as possible,'' he said.
The cabinet, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, says it automatically assumes the powers of the presidency until parliament agrees on a new head of state.
The United States, the United Nations, the European Union and conservative Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are expected to recognise the cabinet's authority.
But an opposition alliance led by the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, says the country no longer has any recognised executive.
Before relinquishing the presidency, Lahoud ordered the army to take charge of security, saying the country ran a risk of descending into a state of emergency. The cabinet dismissed his decree as meaningless.
Pro-government newspaper al-Mustaqbal ran the headline: ''Emile Lahoud's gone'' with two pictures beneath it, one showing Lahoud leaving the palace and the other some Lebanese celebrating his departure.
KEEPING HOPE ALIVE Parliament failed YESTERday to grasp its last chance to elect a head of state before Lahoud's term expired but Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri kept hope alive by asking members to meet again next Friday for another attempt.
Despite the claims of rival factions, there was no sign the conflict would lead to violence soon. The army had deployed in central Beirut overnight for the parliament session.
''A republic without a head ... in the protection of 'organised chaos','' read pro-opposition As-Safir's headline.
Key members of the majority faction, including the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, kept the political temperature down by saying they remained in favour of finding a consensus candidate for the presidency.
Lahoud said ''the dangers of a state of emergency exist and have been fulfilled'' but experts said the wording fell short of a declaration of a state of emergency.
''(The president) entrusts the army with the authority to maintain security on all Lebanese territory and put all armed forces at its disposal with effect from November 24,'' he added.
The United States, the European Union and the United Nations called for calm.
Berri, a Shi'ite opposition leader, put off the presidential election vote for a fifth time yesterday.
The delay means the presidency, always held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, will be vacant for at least a week.
REUTERS SKB ND1330