BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s parliament elected army chief Michel Suleiman as head of state on Sunday, reviving paralyzed state institutions after an 18-month standoff between a U.S.-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition.
Celebratory gunfire erupted in Beirut after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri declared that Suleiman, the sole candidate, had won by securing 118 votes in the 128-member assembly.
The election was part of an agreement brokered by Qatar last week to defuse a crisis that had pushed Lebanon to the brink of civil war, with Hezbollah briefly seizing parts of Beirut and routing government partisans. At least 81 people were killed.
The Doha deal was widely seen as a setback for Washington and its allies, which had pressed for Hezbollah to be disarmed.
However, U.S. President George W. Bush, congratulating Suleiman on his election, said in a statement: “I am hopeful that the Doha Agreement ... will usher in an era of political reconciliation to the benefit of all Lebanese.”
Bush said he was confident that Lebanon had chosen a leader who would uphold the country’s international obligations under U.N. resolutions that call for Hezbollah to be disarmed.
Foreign ministers attending included those of Iran and Syria, which support Hezbollah, and their regional rival Saudi Arabia, which backs the anti-Syrian majority bloc. The Iranian and Saudi ministers met for half an hour after the election.
“It is clear that the Doha settlement could only occur in an atmosphere of regional truces,” Lebanese political commentator Suleiman Taqieddin told Reuters.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad later phoned Suleiman to congratulate him on his election, the Lebanese president’s office said in a statement.
After the vote, Suleiman, 59, took his oath of office in the chamber before making a speech designed to set the tone for his six-year term. Lebanon has had no president since November.
Suleiman urged a “calm dialogue” on a national defense strategy that would draw on the “capacities of the resistance” — apparently suggesting the eventual integration of Hezbollah’s guerrillas into Lebanese security forces.
Hezbollah has rejected any move to force it to lay down its weapons, which it says are needed to deter Israeli attack. But its Lebanese opponents revived calls for the Shi’ite group to disarm after its military offensive in Beirut this month.
Tackling another of the challenges his presidency will face, Suleiman called for formal diplomatic links with Damascus.
Syria, Lebanon’s main powerbroker for 29 years until 2005, has never agreed to exchange embassies with Beirut.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped Suleiman’s election presaged the revitalization of all Lebanon’s constitutional institutions and a return to dialogue.
Suleiman also urged dialogue, criticizing a political discourse based on “accusations of treachery” which had “paved the way to divergence and discord, especially among youth”.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was the most prominent of many dignitaries in Beirut for the vote.
The majority and the opposition agreed long ago Suleiman should be president, but deadlock over the shape of a national unity government had forced the vote to be postponed 19 times.
The deal struck in Doha met the opposition’s main demand for veto power in a unity government and secured the choice of a president on good terms with Syria and Hezbollah.
The agreement, which also stipulates a new law for 2009 parliamentary polls, has calmed a conflict that had stoked sectarian tensions, paralyzed government and hurt the economy.
Parliament had not met for over 18 months, crippling Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government. Bouts of violence killed scores and revived memories of the 1975-90 civil war.
Under Lebanon’s complex power-sharing system, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim.
Suleiman succeeds Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria. Appointed army chief in 1998 when Damascus controlled Lebanon, Suleiman is inescapably linked to that era. He coordinated with Syrian troops before they withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 after an outcry sparked by the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
His first task as president is to appoint a new prime minister and consult with him on forming a cabinet, Siniora remaining as caretaker prime minister in the meantime.
Parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri is frontrunner for the job, but his ally Siniora could stay on, officials said. Suleiman must nominate whoever is backed by a majority of MPs.
Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki, Laila Bassam and Yara Bayoumy; writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Jon Boyle