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Beirut car bomb kills anti-Syrian MP

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A car bomb killed an anti-Syrian lawmaker and at least seven other people in Beirut on Wednesday, less than a week before Lebanon’s parliament was due to elect a new president.

Antoine Ghanem of the Christian Phalange party died in a Christian district of the capital in an attack his allies blamed on Damascus. Syria condemned the killing.

Ghanem was the seventh anti-Syrian figure to be killed in Lebanon since the February 14, 2005, assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

“Every two or three months we are being targeted,” Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, a leading member of the governing coalition who survived an assassination attempt in 2004, told Reuters.

At least 30 other people were wounded by the bomb in the commercial and residential area of Sin el-Fil.

Ghanem, 64, was a member of the anti-Syrian governing coalition which has been locked in a power struggle since November with factions backed by Damascus, including Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

“The killer is one, the criminal is one and the butcher is one,” said Saad al-Hariri, son and political heir of the former prime minister, blaming Syria for killing Ghanem, his father and other allies. Damascus has consistently denied involvement.

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Ghanem’s death reduced the coalition to 68 seats in the 128-seat parliament -- only three more than the absolute majority of 65 seats it needs to win votes. The house had been expected to convene on September 25 to elect a successor to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, which it must do by November 23.

“The Syrian regime is exerting its terrorist skills at the expense of the Lebanese majority,” said Hamadeh.

The United States and the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the attack.

“The bombing that claimed these lives was another act in a campaign of terror by those who want to turn back the clock on Lebanon’s hard won democratic gains,” said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a statement released in Jerusalem.

Rice did not mention Syria by name but the United States blames Damascus for destabilizing its neighbor.

“DESTABILISATION”

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Prime Minister Fouad Siniora requested technical assistance to investigate “this horrific assassination” in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Jean-Maurice Ripert, France’s U.N. ambassador and the president of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, told reporters: “The Security Council condemns this bombing, along with every attempt to destabilize Lebanon, especially during this crucial period.”

The U.N. Security Council moved unilaterally in May to approve the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute suspects in the killing of Hariri and others.

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The opposition wants a compromise candidate to be agreed before the presidential vote goes ahead and anti-Syrian leader Hariri has also stressed the need for a compromise.

The majority’s main candidate is former MP Nassib Lahoud while the opposition’s favorite is the leader of the largest Christian bloc in parliament, Michel Aoun.

Possible compromise candidates include Army Commander Michel Suleiman and Central Bank governor Riad Salameh.

Rival leaders have recently resumed contacts but political sources have said they are unlikely to bear fruit in time for the presidential vote to go ahead next week.

Some anti-Syrian leaders have said the governing coalition could call its legislators to elect a president using their simple majority, bypassing the requirement for a two-thirds quorum for the parliamentary vote.

Lebanese political analyst Oussama Safa said the car bomb was “a strong message to the majority against any plans to elect a president with a simple majority or to go ahead against the wishes of the opposition”.

“I think this is the beginning of destabilization campaign the closer we get to an election date,” he said.

Pierre Gemayel, the industry member and lawmaker who was assassinated in November last year, was a member of the same party as Ghanem, who had returned from a two-month stay abroad this week. He had moved abroad out of security fears.

In June this year, anti-Syrian lawmaker Walid Eido and nine other people were killed by a car bomb in Beirut.

Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki and Laila Bassam in Beirut, Washington and U.N. bureaux

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