Lebanese PM: Elections Set for May

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati's (search) new Cabinet won a vote of confidence in Parliament on Wednesday, clearing the way for the government to hold elections by the end of May.

The legislature, whose term was set to expire May 31, approved a bill extending its term until June 20. Politicians have said the country cannot logistically hold elections in all regions in a single day, opting for staggered voting.

Mikati's government was approved by a 109-1 vote, with three lawmakers abstaining, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced after a count. The legislature has 128 members.

Before the vote, Mikati repeated his pledge to hold parliamentary elections before May 31.

"Our hands are extended to agree on any election law. We have only one condition: to abide by the constitutional deadline (for elections)," Mikati told Parliament. "We will not hesitate to carry out this constitutional requirement on time."

With Syria's nearly three decades of military involvement in Lebanon (search) over, Lebanon shifted its attention inward Wednesday, announcing that the first round of parliamentary elections would be held two days before the May 31 deadline.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) cautioned Lebanon on Tuesday that delaying the polls could destabilize the country.

"I can confirm to the Lebanese and the world that the elections will take place starting from May 29," Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said shortly before the vote of confidence on the Cabinet.

The confirmation of Mikati's government was necessary so it could steer an election law through parliament and organize balloting.

The anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition and the United States have been increasing pressure to hold elections before parliament's current mandate expires. The opposition, which is trying to root out Syrian power in Lebanon, believes it will win the polls.

Syria still wields influence here. President Emile Lahoud is a staunch Syrian ally, Mikati is a close friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the current parliament is dominated by pro-Syrians.

In his report, Annan lamented that Lebanon's government still had not drafted an elections law. He said he was discussing with Lebanese leaders the possibility of U.N. technical assistance, and he encouraged Lebanon to ask for international election observers.

On Tuesday afternoon, in a quiet end to its once indomitable 29-year military presence, Syria's last soldier in Lebanon returned home to cheers and flowers after a modest farewell from the Lebanese.

Annan has dispatched a U.N. team to verify Syria's complete withdrawal.

The Syrian withdrawal would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. But Damascus came under relentless international pressure after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The United States, in particular, is keeping up demands for a complete end to Syria's influence.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the withdrawal "a welcome development" and an important first step toward Syria's compliance with a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last year.

But he said there were "lingering concerns" that Syria had not withdrawn all its intelligence agents. He said the Bush administration was awaiting the report by a U.N. verification team.

Annan's report said Damascus still had not met several provisions of Resolution 1559, including disarming militias -- a clear reference to the Syrian- and Iranian-backed guerrilla group Hezbollah.