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Syria says working for end to Lebanon crisis

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria is working to help resolve Lebanon’s presidential crisis, the foreign minister said on Thursday, responding to reports that France’s patience was wearing thin with Damascus over a stalled presidential election.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem attends the Arab League emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss recent developments in the Palestinian territories, in Cairo June 15, 2007. REUTERS/Nasser Nuri

In a rare session devoted to Lebanon with journalists, Walid al-Moualem said Syria wanted an election as soon as possible to fill the presidency, empty since November 23 when the term of pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud ended.

Mualem said the United States was obstructing a deal by ignoring the principle of consensus, not majority rule, as the main factor in Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

“The American role in Lebanon should be sidelined because it is not balanced. Syria is playing a constructive role. We are facilitating a solution, but at the end the solution is a Lebanese one,” Moualem said.

Foreign powers have historically had interests in Lebanon and the latest crisis has seen several countries intervening to reach a solution.

France has been leading efforts to mediate a settlement between the Western-backed governing coalition and the opposition, led by groups with close ties to Damascus. French officials have also intensified contacts with Syria.

Arab media on Wednesday quoted French President Nicolas Sarkozy as saying he expected action and not words from Damascus to allow the vote to succeed on Saturday.

Responding to questions about the reports, Moualem said: “We are keen to continue coordinating with France to reach a common goal of a consensus president in Lebanon and the formation of a national unity government.”

Moualem said he was due later on Thursday to discuss Lebanon in a phone call with Claude Gueant, Sarkozy’s chief of staff, who visited Damascus twice since November.

The election in parliament has been postponed nine times by differences between Lebanese leaders. The next parliamentary session has been scheduled for Saturday.

Acknowledging that Syria wields influence over its Lebanese allies, Moualem said Damascus was helping relay the demands of the Lebanese opposition on the composition of a new unity government to foreign mediators.

“Every day carries new opportunity to hold the presidential election, as long as consensus is achieved,” he said.

“Syria does not exert pressure. It encourages and urges (its Lebanese allies),” Moualem said. “The position of the opposition groups is legitimate. They don’t demand seats in the cabinet more than their share in parliament.”

The camps have been unable to conclude a political deal expected to make army chief General Michel Suleiman president as there are differences over how to share seats in a new cabinet to be formed once he takes office.

Writing by Tom Perry and Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Janet Lawrence