Lebanese Pres. Battles for Political Survival as MPs Call on Him to Quit

UN inquiry has raised suspicion over Lebanonese President Emile Lahoud's involvement in the killing of an ex-premier.

BEIRUT - A year after the Syrian-imposed extension of his term, Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud is battling to stay in office now a UN inquiry has raised suspicion over his involvement in the killing of an ex-premier.

Seen by many Lebanese as the last vestige of Syrian tutelage over their country, Lahoud has been urged to resign since the murder of Rafik al-Hariri, his most bitter rival, in February.

Mass protests that forced Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon in the aftermath of the killing also criticised the president who demonstrators felt should go with them.

Pressure mounted when four pro-Syrian generals including Republican Guard chief Mustafa Hamdan, one of Lahoud's closest aides, were arrested in August and charged in connection with the killing of Hariri and 20 others in a Beirut bomb blast.

With a UN inquiry now implicating senior Syrian and Lebanese officials and indicating his own involvement in the murder, Lahoud is fighting for his political survival.

Two anti-Syrian members of parliament immediately called for him to resign and others are sure to follow.

The 68-year-old former army chief has so far stood firm, protesting his innocence and vowing to serve until the end of his term in 2007.

"I promised the Lebanese people when I was sworn in that I would uphold the constitution and Lebanon's unity," he said after the killing of an anti-Syrian columnist in June.

"I am keeping my oath until the last minute of my constitutional tenure."

But few politicians make the pilgrimage to the presidential palace at Baabda these days -- once a blessing for any career, an audience with the president is now a political kiss of death.

Lahoud is also feeling the international chill as his main backer, Syria, has found itself increasingly isolated by a world community outraged at the murder of Hariri, a billionaire with a network of contacts stretching from Paris to Jeddah.

When a senior U.S. State Department official visited Beirut this month, he met several government ministers but not Lahoud.

While Lahoud was addressing the UN General Assembly last month, an anti-Syrian Lebanese team was discussing with senior European, Arab and U.S. officials an international debt aid conference to help Lebanon launch reforms after years of Syrian domination.

Embattled and isolated, the criticism of Lahoud marks a fall from grace for the army chief who swept to power seven years ago on a wave of support from Lebanese who hoped he would lead them out of a legacy of corruption and bloated debts.

His early days in office saw Hariri's departure as prime minister and the formation of a new government on a mission to combat graft.

But the high hopes placed on the general-turned-president faded when his team failed to deliver. Faced with an economic downturn, he was forced to name Hariri to lead the cabinet again after his big victory in the 2000 general election.

Rifts between the two men soon bogged down government and state institutions and hampered economic reforms, including privatisation to tackle a public debt at almost $36 billion.

When Lahoud indicated he would seek a three-year extension as his six-year term drew to a close last year, he said top officials shared responsibility for the failures.

The extension required a constitutional amendment, which annoyed many Lebanese opposed to changing the constitution to accommodate one person, but was passed with Syria twisting the arms of deputies including Hariri and his bloc. Hariri resigned last October, a month after the amendment was passed.

The finest hour of Lahoud's presidency has been perhaps the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. Under fire from Hizbollah guerrillas for years, Israel ended its 22-year occupation in 2000, though Lebanon and Syria say the pullout is incomplete.

Hizbollah, which is on Washington's list of terrorist groups, paid homage at the time to Lahoud's supporting role.

When elected by parliament in 1998, Lahoud was seen as personifying a unified state.

He had already unified the army, which like the rest of the country split along sectarian lines in the 1975-1990 civil war.

Under Lahoud's leadership from 1989, it grew from a demoralised body of 19,000 men to a non-sectarian force of some 65,000.