Lebanese Leaders Vow Elections Despite Assassination

Lebanese leaders pledged Thursday to press ahead with a divisive election for president, to be held in parliament in coming days, despite the car bombing assassination of an anti-Syrian lawmaker.

The powerful bombing Wednesday killed lawmaker Antoine Ghanem and six others, and threatened to derail efforts to bring the country's rival parties together to agree on a head of state before voting is set to begin next week.

At least 67 were wounded in the explosion, which severely damaged buildings and set cars ablaze during rush hour on a busy street in Sin el-Fil, a Christian neighborhood of Beirut.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora pledged that Lebanon would press ahead to pick a president.

"The hand of terror will not win and will not succeed in subduing us and silencing us," he said in a statement late Wednesday carried by the official news agency. "The Lebanese will not retreat and will have a new president elected by lawmakers, no matter how big the conspiracy was."

A Cabinet statement Thursday vowed that terrorism will not prevail, and the killers would be found. It stressed that presidential elections should be held and called on lawmakers to attend Tuesday's session.

Other anti-Syrian leaders appealed to the world to protect Lebanon from what they said was a "new war" by Syria to undermine their country. In a statement, the coalition called on the Arab League and the U.N. Security Council to take measures to ensure the presidential election.

"The Syrian regime has taken the decision to bring down the Lebanese republic," said a statement released by the anti-Syrian coalition after a meeting Thursday. "It (Syria) has assigned its intelligence agencies to liquidate the lawmakers."

Speaking in the West Bank, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the assassination "simply unacceptable." In a veiled criticism of Syria, Rice said the Lebanese people have the right to hold upcoming elections "without the fear of intimidation, without the fear of foreign interference."

Ghanem, 64, a member of the Christian Phalange party, had returned from refuge abroad only two days earlier. He was the eighth anti-Syria figure and fourth governing coalition lawmaker to be assassinated in less than three years.

Damascus has denied involvement in the slaying, as it has in the previous seven assassinations, including the 2005 bombing death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — a killing that ignited huge protests that forced Syria to withdraw its troops after a three-decade occupation.

Saniora asked the U.N. secretary-general in a letter to add the Ghanem assassination to an international probe into Hariri's slaying and other political crimes in Lebanon.

Schools, universities and banks across the country as well as many businesses in Christian areas of Beirut and in the Mount Lebanon region north of the capital were closed Thursday for a day of mourning and to observe a strike called by the Phalange Party. A funeral was to be held Friday.

President Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria, is due to step down from the presidency Nov. 24, and government supporters see the vote as a chance to put one of their own in the post by a simple majority vote of 65.

Lahoud also implied that Ghanem's death was meant to undermine the presidential vote, saying "it is no coincidence that whenever there are positive signs," someone is killed.

Despite Wednesday's slaying, Saniora supporters still have a majority to keep the government from falling. But a simple majority to elect a president was uncertain after four pro-government members said they will not vote under the simple majority system.

The militant group Hezbollah and its allies in the pro-Syrian opposition vow to block any candidate they do not approve. They can do so by boycotting the vote, preventing the needed two-thirds quorum of 85 votes.

Many Lebanese fear the division over the presidency could lead to the creation of two rival governments — a grim prospect for Lebanon, which suffered through a civil war from 1975 to 1990.

The U.S.-backed Saniora has been mired in a power struggle with the opposition, led by the Syrian-allied Hezbollah.

Government supporters accuse Syria of seeking to end Saniora's small majority in Parliament by killing off lawmakers in his coalition, which now holds 68 seats to the opposition's 59.

After the assassination of lawmaker Walid Eido in June, many majority legislators left the country to spend the summer abroad in safety, while those who stayed took extra security.

Ghanem had returned only Monday from the United Arab Emirates, where he took refuge for two months. He was traveling Wednesday in a car with regular license plates — his blue Parliament plate hidden in the trunk, apparently as a security measure.

Antoine Andraos, another colleague, said Ghanem had called him earlier in the day, asking for a bulletproof car, a TV station linked to Hariri reported.

Security officials said Wednesday a landmark hotel near the Parliament building in downtown Beirut has been booked to house legislators in the governing majority so they can be better protected during the 60-day presidential election process.