BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon's political tumult intensified as President Emile Lahoud said the country is in a "state of emergency" and handed security powers to the army before he left office late Friday without a successor. The rival, pro-Western Cabinet rejected the declaration.
Lahoud's final announcement created new confusion in an already unsettled situation, which many Lebanese fear could explode into violence between supporters of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's Western-backed government and the pro-Syria opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
The departure of Lahoud, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime during nine years in office, was a long-sought goal of the government installed by parliament's anti-Syria majority, which has been trying to put one of its own in the presidency.
Hezbollah and other opposition groups have blocked legislators from electing a new president by boycotting ballot sessions, leaving parliament without the required quorum.
The fight has put Lebanon into dangerous, unknown territory: Both sides are locked in bitter recriminations, accusing the other of breaking the constitution, and they are nowhere near a compromise on a candidate to become head of state.
The army command refused to comment on the developments. The military, under its widely respected chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, has sought to remain neutral in the political chaos, and Lahoud's statement did not give it political powers.
The capital was calm, and all sides were vowing to avoid violence. Even before the president's vague announcement, the military was in place to guard against the two sides' supporters taking the conflict to the streets. On alert for days, hundreds of soldiers stood with tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps in the area around the downtown parliament building as well as on roads leading into Beirut.
Lahoud stepped down when his term expired at midnight, smiling as he reviewed an honor guard on the way out of the presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda. "My conscience is clear," he told reporters. "Lebanon is still well."
Before getting into his car to go, he blasted Saniora's government, calling it "illegitimate and unconstitutional. They know that, even if (President) Bush said otherwise."
In the capital, some 2,000 government supporters gathered in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood cheered his departure, setting off fireworks, beating drums and shouting, "Lahoud Out!"
His departure left the presidency vacant after parliament failed again to convene earlier Friday to vote on a successor.
Lahoud's vaguely worded final statement, two hours before midnight, wasn't a formal declaration of a state of emergency, but he enflamed tempers with his reference to a "state of emergency" in Lebanon.
"Because a state of emergency exists all over the land as of Nov. 24, 2007, the army is instructed to preserve security all over the Lebanese territory," the presidential spokesman, Rafik Shalala, said.
The constitution requires the Cabinet to approve any state of emergency, and Saniora's government quickly rejected the announcement.
"It has no value and is unconstitutional and consequently it is considered as if it was not issued," said a government spokesman, who asked not to be identified because an official announcement had not yet been made by the prime minister.
Later, a government statement said the Cabinet "continues to shoulder its responsibilities and exercise its full authority."
Shalala argued Saniora's position didn't matter because his government was not constitutional — the position voiced by Lahoud and the opposition since the Cabinet's five Shiite Muslim members quit last year.
Further complications came with the expiration of Lahoud's term. Under the constitution, the government is supposed to take on the president's powers if he leaves office without a replacement. Lahoud had vowed not to hand his authorities to Saniora — and his reference to a state of emergency might have been an attempt to escape doing so.
Saniora signaled earlier that his government planned to assume the powers. His top ally, the United States, said Friday that was the proper path.
"This is the procedure stipulated by the Lebanese constitution, and will ensure that the government is able to continue conducting its business without interruption," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.
Calling for the election of a new president "as quickly as possible," McCormack said, "We urge all Lebanese political groups to do their part to maintain calm and promote security for Lebanon's citizens."
In a travel alert issued as the two sides traded barbs, the State Department noted Lahoud's action saying the election process "may pose security issues" for U.S. citizens and others in the country.
"There is a strong possibility for demonstrations and unrest during this period," it said. "The U.S. Embassy urges U.S. citizens who live, work or are traveling in Lebanon to exercise responsible security practices."
The embassy began restricting the movements of U.S. diplomats in Lebanon on Nov. 20, limiting their travel in downtown Beirut near the parliament building and other government offices and banned all but essential travel to Beirut International Airport until Monday.
Opposition leader Michel Aoun warned the Cabinet that "usurping the role of the presidency" would increase its "illegitimacy." But he appeared to be trying to ease fears of violence by adding that the opposition would "calmly confront" the situation.
The military command declined to comment on the president's statement, but Suleiman, the military commander, told his troops earlier in the week to ignore the constitutional wrangling and "listen to the call of duty."
The anti-Syria camp has sought to capture the presidency to seal the end of Syria dominance of Lebanon, which lasted for 29 years until international pressure and mass protests forced Damascus to withdraw Syrian troops in 2005.
Hezbollah, which is an ally of Syria and Iran, and its opposition allies have been able to stymie the government's hopes by boycotting parliament, as they did Friday afternoon when the majority tried to convene a session to vote before Lahoud left office.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, scheduled another session for Nov. 30 to give the factions more time to try to find a compromise candidate — something they failed to do in weeks of talks mediated by France's foreign minister and others.
Leaders from each side had been pledging not to take steps to provoke the other — though Lahoud's announcement raised the heat.
"We have no choice but to have a consensus," Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syria majority in parliament, said after the failed session. "It is not in Lebanon's interest that the (presidential) palace is left empty."
Another factor complicating the crisis was the U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference next week.
Government supporters have accused Syria of using its allies in Lebanon to block a deal on the presidency until it sees what it gets in the conference. Damascus wants the meeting in Annapolis, Md., to address its demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
France on Friday called for patience to resolve Lebanon's crisis but also chided Syria. French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said it's up to the "Syrians, like everyone else, to remember that the goal is not to hinder the process but to help it."