By Tom Perry
BEIRUT, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Lebanese leaders will put off a presidential election set for Friday for a sixth time to allow for talks expected to focus on the army chief’s nomination for a post now vacant for a week, political sources said.
General Michel Suleiman has emerged as the latest nominee for the post at the heart of a power struggle between the Western-backed governing coalition and the opposition backed by Syria and led by Hezbollah.
"This matter is the subject of serious discussion," Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said, in reference to Suleiman. "God willing we will arrive at the result that secures the interest of Lebanon," he said, according to a statement from his office.
The presidency has been empty since Nov. 23 when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud’s term ended. A series of parliamentary sessions called to elect his replacement have failed because there has been no agreement between the rivals on a candidate.
Political sources said Friday’s session would not go ahead but could not confirm whether Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, also an opposition leader, would postpone it beforehand or wait until the last minute before announcing the delay.
Agreement on a new president would defuse Lebanon’s worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. Fears of a return to violence have eased since last week with both sides seeking to contain rather than escalate their standoff.
But the rivals have yet to agree on any of a number of possible compromise candidates, who must be Maronite Christians under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.
The anti-Damascus governing coalition had previously opposed the nomination of Suleiman, who was appointed army chief when Syria controlled Lebanon and has good ties with Hezbollah.
Shifting their position, lawmakers loyal to governing coalition leader Saad al-Hariri said on Wednesday they would accept a constitutional amendment needed to allow the general to fill the post. The constitution currently forbids a senior public servant from running.
Although it supports a deal on the presidency, Hezbollah still publicly backs Michel Aoun for the position. Aoun’s candidacy is strongly opposed by the governing coalition.
In a sign that there is still a way to go before a deal, a senior Hezbollah politician said the rivals were merely seeking to "score points" rather than solve the conflict.
"The current political performance regarding the presidential election does not suggest positive signs," Mohammed Fneish said, as quoted by the National News Agency. (Editing by Myra MacDonald)