Talks among Lebanese leaders to agree on president pick up momentum

A dialogue among Lebanese leaders to agree on a president picked up momentum Thursday in a bid by the rival politicians to prevent the country from sliding deeper into a crisis that threatens its unity.
The discussions between the pro-government and the opposition camps began right after Parliament failed on Tuesday to elect a president because of a boycott by the Hezbollah-led opposition.
Majority leader Saad Hariri has met three times with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition. On Thursday, Hariri met with Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, head of the influential Maronite Catholic Church.
Under Lebanon's complex sectarian-based political system since 1943 independence, a president traditionally hails from the Maronite community, which makes up the largest sect among the minority Christians.
Although the president is a Christian, he is seen as a uniting figure and agreement on one is certain to ease the political power struggle between the anti-Syrian majority coalition, led by U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, and the opposition, led by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah that is backed by Syria and Iran.
There are concerns among many, particularly in the majority, that a possible compromise could yield a weak, neutral candidate who may not succeed in bringing the parties together.
The majority is hoping to put one of its own in the post, but the opposition has rejected a president whom they don't endorse.
Hariri, speaking to reporters afterwards, indicated that the focus is on a president "who has color and taste" and pledged to continue his efforts.
"We want a president who is strong, who has political standing and understands the Lebanese issues," he said.
More than 15 declared or undeclared candidates are vying for the post, three of them members of the pro-government camp and one from the opposition.
Major countries, fearing a deterioration if no political progress is made, have urged the parties to talk and reach an agreement.
The U.N. Security Council, in a press statement Thursday, called for free and fair elections "in conformity with the Lebanese constitutional norms and schedules and without any foreign interference, in full respect of the sovereignty of Lebanon on the basis of national unity and in an atmosphere free of violence, fear and intimidation."
That prompted criticism from the opposition-aligned Lebanese parliament speaker, who has been leading an effort to reconcile the differences between the majority and the opposition.
"With all due respect, it is not the business of the Security Council to interfere in what is the business of the Lebanese parliament," Berri said in a statement carried by the official news agency. "The more people are imposed upon, the more they and the Security Council just get exhausted."
On Wednesday, the Egyptian, Saudi and French foreign ministers and the Arab League secretary-general, meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, said the situation in Lebanon requires "special attention" due to threats to its own future and to regional security.
Although the two sides in Lebanon were still far apart, the ongoing dialogue has helped ease some of the political tensions that built up in recent days ahead of Tuesday's parliamentary meeting.
Putting off the parliamentary session until Oct. 23 has given politicians room to deliberate. In Tuesday's session, boycotted by the opposition, the legislature failed to muster enough lawmakers _ a two-third quorum _ to begin voting.
The attempt to choose a successor to President Emile Lahoud before he steps down on Nov. 24 has become Lebanon's most serious political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
If the parliament cannot elect a president by Nov. 24, Saniora and his Cabinet would automatically take on executive powers. Some in the opposition have threatened that this could lead them to back a government they are urging Lahoud to appoint before he leaves office.
That could result in two rival administrations, as occurred in the last two years of Lebanon's civil war, when the administration split and army units loyal to two governments fought it out.
The period before the election is fraught with dangers after last week's assassination of pro-government lawmaker Antoine Ghanem. Fears of another attack in Lebanon remain high, with accusations by government supporters that Syria is targeting members of the ruling coalition, a claim denied by Damascus.
Syria has denied any involvement in the car bombing of Ghanem on a Beirut street or in previous assassinations since 2005, including that of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.