Lebanon Moves to Keep President in Office

Lebanon's Parliament amended the country's constitution Friday to extend pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's (search) term, ignoring U.N. calls to hold an election to choose the head of state.

The result, secured after Lahoud supporters mustered more than the two-thirds of votes needed, had been expected. Neighboring Syria (search), the main power broker in Lebanon (search), backed Lahoud's bid to extend his six-year term, which was due to expire Nov. 24.

Ninety-six of the 125 lawmakers who attended the 2 1/2-hour session raised their hands to support the amendment, while the remaining 29 legislators voted against it. The bill was declared adopted by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Late Thursday, a deeply divided U.N. Security Council narrowly approved a resolution aimed at pressuring Lebanon to reject a second term for Lahoud and calling for an immediate withdrawal of all its foreign forces — an indirect reference to Syrian troops.

The United States and France had pushed for the resolution, which was aimed at pressuring Syria to loosen its grip on Lebanese politics.

But Lebanon's lawmakers pressed ahead, affirming their loyalty to Syria by backing Lahoud, Damascus' close ally.

Legislator Mohammed Raad, leader of the nine-member Hezbollah bloc, the Lebanese guerrilla group the United States lists as a terrorist organization, said the vote was "to support Lahoud and to reject the policies of the American administration in the region."

Before the proposal to extend Lahoud's term was put to a vote, opponents slammed the process and criticized Syrian interference.

"I reject the proposed amendment. It has been proven to us that the extension decision had been taken in Syria and by the Syrian regime," presidential candidate Butros Harb told the legislature.

Another lawmaker, former first lady Nayla Moawwad, called the amendment a "scandal" that put Lebanon and Syria in a confrontation with the United Nations.

"This is a sad scene and a black day in the history of Lebanon," she said.

Thursday's U.N. Security Council resolution declared "support for a free and fair electoral process in Lebanon's upcoming presidential election" and rejected "foreign interference or influence," a reference to Syria.

The U.N. resolution was adopted with the minimum nine "yes" votes. For it to pass, the United States and France had to drop a threat "to consider additional measures" if the resolution wasn't implemented and referred to withdrawal of "all remaining foreign forces," dropping the direct reference to Syria.

Syria sent its troops to Lebanon in 1976 to help quell a year-old civil war that raged for 14 more years. The troops remain and Lebanon's government repeatedly says their presence is a stabilizing factor since the war ended in 1990.

Over the years, Syria has become Lebanon's supreme power, often mediating among feuding politicians.

In a statement Friday, Foreign Minister Jean Obeid said the U.N. resolution was "out of place," but Lebanon will work with the world body and other countries to "right the course and confront the results" of the resolution.

Israel welcomed the resolution, but a senior official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said it did not go far enough to impose sanctions against Damascus.

Last week, Lebanon's Cabinet approved the constitutional amendment before sending it to Parliament, saying Lahoud had to remain in office to ensure regional instability — citing Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Opponents said there was no emergency that would prevent an election.