Lebanon veers into unknown after vote fails

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BEIRUT, Nov 24 (Reuters) Lebanon edged closer to chaos on Friday when President Emile Lahoud ordered the army to take charge of security after political rivalries blocked the election of his successor hours before his term expired.

Shortly before he left the presidential palace at the stroke of midnight (2200 GMT), the pro-Syrian head of state said the country risked descending into a state of emergency. The U.S.

government warned Americans in Lebanon of the threat of unrest.

The existing cabinet, which Lahoud and the parliamentary opposition says is illegitimate, dismissed his order as meaningless. The cabinet, with US and European support, took on presidential powers at midnight.

But the two sides in the dispute will no longer agree on any executive authority, raising the prospect of chaos.

The Lebanese parliament failed earlier in the day to grasp its last chance to elect a head of state before Lahoud's term expires, but the speaker of parliament kept hope alive by asking members to meet again next Friday for another attempt.

Despite the claims of rival factions, there was no sign that the conflict would lead to violence soon. The army had deployed in central Beirut overnight for the parliament session.

Lahoud said that ''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 Nov. 24,'' he added.

''The most important thing is that my conscience is clear and Lebanon is fine,'' Lahoud later told reporters as he left his palace for the last time as head of state.

Another prominent opponent of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's cabinet, Christian leader and presidential candidate Michel Aoun, said the existing cabinet would become a ''usurper government'' as soon as Lahoud leaves office.

The two sides in the dispute are an anti-Syrian parliamentary majority led by the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and an opposition alliance led by the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran.

US WARNING The United States, the European Union and the United Nations called for calm.

The US State Department issued a warning to Americans in Lebanon of a ''strong possibility'' of demonstrations and unrest.

''The United States government commends Lebanon's armed forces and security services for their stated commitment to ensuring law and order,'' a State Department spokesman said.

The spokeswoman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Ban ''urges all parties to live up to their responsibilities and to act within the constitutional framework as well as in a peaceful and democratic manner''.

Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi'ite opposition leader, put off the presidential election vote for a fifth time yestrday because the rival factions were deadlocked.

The delay means the presidency, a post always held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, will be vacant for at least a week.

Concern about the political impasse and possible instability pushed the Beirut stock exchange index down 4 percent.

French-led mediation efforts failed to resolve the dispute over the presidency, which reflects the regional struggle pitting Washington against Syria and Iran.

The United States and its local allies blame Syria for the deadlock. Hezbollah and its Christian partners say the majority bloc wants to keep them from their rightful share of power. They accuse Washington of seeking to control Lebanon.

More than 100 lawmakers from both camps went to parliament in central Beirut, but opposition MPs did not enter the assembly chamber in line with a boycott declared a day earlier.

Before announcing the delay, Berri held separate meetings with majority leaders Saad al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, a sign the rival camps have not yet burned all their bridges.

''We are for consensus and we will remain for consensus,'' Hariri said.

Reuters TB VP0425

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