Lebanon crisis deepens

A deadline for Lebanese lawmakers to elect a new head of state is set to expire with feuding political parties still deadlocked despite intense international pressure.

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MP Solange Gemayel, a member of the ruling coalition, had said a last-ditch session to elect a successor to incumbent president Emile Lahoud had been postponed.

But the anti-Syrian ruling coalition which dominates parliament, made a last-minute appeal to lawmakers to turn up for the crucial vote.

The Forces of March 14 ruling coalition “invites all lawmakers to take part in the session to elect a new head of state,” MP Elie Aoun said at a press conference aired on television.

The foreign ministers of France, Italy and Spain, have expressed pessimism after shuttling between the rival sides in an ultimate bid to wrench an agreement on a compromise candidate.

“Tomorrow, I don't believe there will be an election and this will create difficult conditions,” Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told a press conference. “But this is not the end of the world.”

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also indicated that a deal between the Western-backed majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition appeared to have eluded negotiators.

“A miracle is still possible tomorrow but I think it is going to be a little complicated,” Mr Kouchner said.

The deadlock has sparked fears of two parallel governments being formed and of civil unrest.

A senior Lebanese official predicted earlier that Friday's session would be cancelled with the two sides agreeing to continue negotiations into next week or beyond.

According to Article 62 of the Lebanese constitution, if no candidate is chosen by parliament to replace Lahoud, his powers are automatically transferred to the government.

The ruling coalition, which has 68 deputies in the 127-member parliament, had previously vowed to proceed with a simple majority vote but that option appeared unlikely for fear it could spark unrest, according to political officials.

The opposition, backed by Syria and Iran, for its part has threatened to set up a parallel government, a grim reminder of the end of the 1975-1990 civil war when two administrations battled it out.

Opposition leader Michel Aoun offered an end to the impasse saying that his camp was willing to name an interim president while the ruling majority could appoint a prime minister.

Mr Aoun said under his plan, he would name a candidate from outside his parliamentary bloc to replace Lahoud until after the 2009 legislative elections and parliament majority leader Saad Hariri would name a prime minister from outside his Future Movement to form a national “reconciliation government”.

He said his proposal, which was submitted to the ruling coalition, was valid only until 11pm Friday local time (8am AEST, Saturday).

Four previous parliament sessions over the past two months to elect a president have already been postponed despite a host of foreign diplomats and politicians scrambling to Beirut to mediate between the sides.

The crisis, the worst since the end of the civil war, is widely seen as an extension of the regional confrontation pitting the United States against Iran and Syria.

Hezbollah has said it would not settle for a president under US tutelage while the Western-backed majority has balked at any candidate close to Syria and Iran.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday said if Damascus wanted to improve its relations with Washington it must allow for a free election in Lebanon.

France has also dispatched top envoys to Damascus, which was forced to end its 29-year troop presence in Lebanon in 2005, following the assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

The political crisis has left the country on edge, with the army out in force in the capital to prevent any outbreak of violence.

Several prominent anti-Syrian figures have been killed in a wave of attacks in Lebanon since Hariri's murder, which many have blamed on Damascus.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government has been paralysed since the opposition withdrew its six ministers from the cabinet in November 2006 in a bid to gain more representation in government.

64th Indipendence anniversary

Due to the political crisis, the annual military parade to mark the 64th anniversary of the country's independence was cancelled for the second consecutive year.

But more than two hundred Lebanese gathered in the Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut to mark the anniversary.

The small-scale ceremony was the only public pageant in Beirut on the Independence Day which was usually marked with a military parade and festivities.