BEIRUT Lebanon delayed its presidential election by nearly three weeks to November 12 on Monday to allow more time for rival pro- and anti-Syrian groups to agree on a compromise candidate.
The Lebanese parliament had been scheduled to meet on Tuesday to choose a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, whose term expires on November 23.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement he was postponing the vote "to allow for more consultations that would lead to consensus on electing a president who would symbolize the unity and resilience of the country".
It is the second postponement in electing a president, a step seen as vital to resolving a one-year-old crisis pitting the anti-Syrian ruling majority against the opposition, led by pro-Syrian Hezbollah.
Political sources said the delay was a positive signal that the two sides were still hopeful of reaching a compromise to ensure a smooth transition.
"We wish that by that time (November 12), we are able to progress towards holding this constitutional election," Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said.
There are fears that if no president is elected before Lahoud's term expires, Lebanon would end up with two rival governments and bloodshed. The political crisis is the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Opposition MPs boycotted parliament on September 25 to prevent a two-thirds quorum and thwart anti-Syrian factions, which have a slim majority, from electing a new head of state.
Siniora's backers, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, want to replace Lahoud with one of their own.
Hezbollah and its allies in the opposition want to deny the presidency to their rivals, whom they regard as puppets of the United States.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and his Spanish and Italian counterparts Miguel Moratinos and Massimo D'Alema, urged rival factions to reach a swift deal during a visit to Lebanon last week.
"The ministers reiterated the urgency of an inter-Lebanese accord in terms of this crucial election, and our availability to continue working towards that end," deputy French Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said on Monday.
Berri, a Hezbollah ally, has been holding talks with Saad al-Hariri, the leader of the anti-Syrian coalition, to try to agree on a consensus president, who according to Lebanon's power-sharing system must be Maronite Christian.
Rival Christian leaders have also started meetings to bridge the gap and ensure a smooth election. The anti-Syrian coalition has put forward two of its Maronite members as candidates while the opposition backs its Maronite leader Michel Aoun.
A host of other current and former officials, including the army chief and central bank governor, are thought to be in the running as possible consensus candidates.
Syrian troops intervened in Lebanon to end its civil war and Damascus dominated Lebanese politics until the assassination of former premier Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 provoked a wave of mass anti-Syrian protests.
Syria was forced to withdraw its forces after a 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
Seven other anti-Syrian figures have been killed since the Hariri slaying, including most recently MP Antoine Ghanem. Leading Lebanese anti-Syrian figures blame Damascus for the killings, a charge Damascus denies.
(Additional reporting by Jon Boyle in Paris)