Foreign powers sway Lebanon's quest for president

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QUSAYA, Lebanon, Oct 17 (Reuters) Outside powers cast long shadows over Lebanon's struggle for a deal between rival camps before next week's parliamentary session to elect a successor to outgoing President Emile Lahoud, a close Syrian ally.

Hemmed in by Syria and Israel, Lebanon is also buffeted by a US struggle to counter Iranian and Syrian adversaries.

Such regional rivalries have long tempted Lebanese leaders, who jostle for power within a complex system that shares key posts among 17 Muslim and Christian sects, to seek alliances with foreigners whose influence can be hard to shake off.

Syria kept troops in Lebanon for 29 years until forced to withdraw them in 2005 after ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated. It still flexes its muscles in its former client state via an array of Lebanese and Palestinian allies.

In the hills above the Christian village of Qusaya, pro-Syrian Palestinian guerrillas train and fire their weapons daily in a military base straddling the Syrian-Lebanese border.

''This is the last checkpoint, up there are the camps,'' said a Lebanese army soldier halting visitors at a steel gate across a rough road that climbs into the mountainous frontier zone.

In the past year, the army has tried to seal off guerrilla bases dotting the border, but has not tackled the Palestinian factions entrenched there for two decades or more.

''They haven't harmed us,'' said Huda Abdou, dark-haired wife of the mayor of Qusaya. ''But the Palestinians are sitting on our land up there. Certainly we want them to leave.'' In June a UN inquiry called the bases a major obstacle to securing the border and halting arms smuggling.

Syria has long funnelled weapons to Hezbollah, including many supplied by Iran, the main patron of the Lebanese Shi'ite guerrilla group that battled Israel for 34 days last year.

Damascus naturally supports Hezbollah and its allies in the ussle over the presidency, reserved for a Maronite Christian.

SAUDI FINANCIAL MUSCLE Saudi Arabia, on icy terms with Syria, backs the majority Sunni-Druze-Christian bloc led by Hariri's son Saad -- and keeps 1 billion dollar in the Central Bank to stabilise the Lebanese pound.

''The Syrians don't want a president who is anti-Syrian, or one who is going to pursue vigorously border security issues in ways that don't suit them,'' argued Paul Salem, director of the Beirut branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He said the Syrians also wanted a president who would not put his weight behind a UN tribunal due to try the killers of Hariri and a string of other anti-Syrian figures.

''They could find ways to benefit from a constitutional vacuum where we have no president, or two presidents, and a breakdown of order in Lebanon,'' Salem added.

In contrast, sectarian chaos would not suit Iran, which fears Hezbollah would lose pan-Arab credibility as a symbol of resistance to America and Israel if it fought as a Shi'ite militia.

''Iran's concern is to keep Hezbollah alive and well for any future confrontation with Israel or the US,'' Salem said.

Apart from arming, training and funding Hezbollah since it emerged in the early 1980s, the Islamic Republic has fostered ties with its co-religionists in Lebanon's Shi'ite community.

Iran unleashed a reconstruction drive in mainly Shi'ite areas of Lebanon after Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel.

In the Bekaa Valley, bulldozers churn clouds of dust from a highway north of Baalbek bombed by the Israelis. Now the Iranians are rebuilding and widening a 24-km stretch.

''We are in the service of the Lebanese people, before the war or after the war,'' an Iranian site engineer, who introduced himself as Brother Murad, told Reuters via a translator.

IRAN WINS GRATITUDE Shi'ite residents in the nearby village of Tawfiqiyeh welcomed the Iranian project, complaining of Lebanese state neglect of their water, power and infrastructure needs.

''We wish the government would help us as much as the Iranians do,'' sighed Ali Bazzal, a 35-year-old butcher.

In Beirut, Hussam Khoshnevis, 45, a trimly bearded engineer charged by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to lead the reconstruction effort, refused to divulge how much Tehran was spending on what he said were 1,481 projects in Lebanon.

''It's more important to focus on getting the work done than to talk about money,'' he said, signing cheques in his office.

Iran's effort is highly visible compared to US assistance, which is mostly military aid to the Lebanese army.

In May, Washington rushed ammunition to troops battling Islamist militants at a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon. It has provided 321 million dollar in military aid in the past two years, as well as 60 million dollar for the police.

But Lebanon's long-neglected army has no fixed-wing planes, air defences or modern equipment. Its weakness suits Israel and Syria and bolsters Hezbollah's argument that it is the only force capable of resisting or deterring Israeli military might.

''We are waiting for the Americans to fufill their promises and for the Europeans to help us,'' said Nizar Abdel Kader, a retired Lebanese general who advocates building a strong army.

The United States, a staunch ally of Israel, has many other concerns in the region, such as the Iraq war, the nuclear row with Iran and efforts to revive Middle East peacemaking, and would probably want to know who will be Lebanon's next president before deciding whether to pour in more military aid.

While lacking strategic value, Lebanon is seen as a rare Middle East policy success by Washington, which hopes parliament will consolidate that gain by electing an anti-Syrian president.

Carnegie's Salem said the Americans did not want to ''lose the country'' to civil war or collapse, but were also wary of making any concessions to Syria or Iran in Lebanon.

''The situation is quite worrisome,'' he concluded.

Reutes RN RS0931

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