Lebanon extends Lahoud's presidency

Move directed by Syria meets with resentment


BEIRUT, Lebanon - As expected, Lebanon's Parliament rubber-stamped Syria's order to keep its hand-picked president in office yesterday, voting in an extraordinary session to amend the Constitution to give him three more years.

Moments after the 96-29 vote, pre-set fireworks exploded into the darkness around the Parliament headquarters in Beirut's renewed downtown, which was already plastered with freshly printed posters of President Emile Lahoud.

Syria has called the political shots in Lebanon since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. About 20,000 Syrian troops are still stationed here.

But what was widely regarded as a heavy-handed effort by Damascus to push the amendment through this week has generated widespread Lebanese resentment. And it has raised questions among political commentators over what they regarded as clumsy miscalculations by Syria's young ruler, Bashar Assad, son of the country's longtime dictator, Hafez el Assad.

Following weeks of hand-wringing articles in the vigorous local press over the possibility that Lahoud's term would be extended past its constitutionally mandated single six-year term, which is to end in November, the Syrians suddenly clamped down.

A Cabinet meeting was unexpectedly convened last Saturday, and it authorized the constitutional amendment. The speaker of Parliament, Nabil Berri, head of the Shiite Muslim movement Amal and a close ally of Syria, rushed through procedures to summon last night's parliamentary session.

The rush appeared to be at least in part an effort to beat a joint American-French resolution in the United Nations that was approved late Thursday. The measure, passed by a vote of 9-0 with six abstentions, warned against outside interference in the Lebanese elections and called for the removal of all foreign troops.

The American position has created problems for the critics of Syria. In the current climate in the Arab world, where America is not only viewed as the unquestioning champion of Israel but also as having caused a mess in Iraq, few want to be associated with the United States.

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