Lebanon Gets New President

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Lebanon's parliament elected army commander General Michel Suleiman as president Sunday in a long-delayed vote that was a key step toward restoring political stability.

Celebratory gunfire and occasional explosions reverberated across the capital Beirut as news of Suleiman's election was announced.

In the general's hometown of Aamchit on the Mediterranean coast, north of Beirut, hundreds of people broke out in cheers and dancing in the main square as they watched the vote on a giant screen.

The Hezbollah-led opposition and Western-backed government agreed last week to elect Suleiman as part of their deal to end an 18-month political crisis. The stalemate erupted into violence earlier this month, bringing the country to the brink of another civil war.

The presidential vote had been postponed 19 times since November when the last president, Emile Lahoud, left office.

Suleiman, a compromise candidate, ran unopposed. He won 118 votes of the 127 living members of the legislature, according to parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

There were six blank ballots. Two legislators voted for one-time presidential hopefuls and one was in the name "Rafik Hariri and the martyred legislators" -- a reference to the slain former prime minister and five other lawmakers killed in bombings in the last three years.

After the vote, Berri was to swear in the new president.

As the session got under way, four lawmakers objected to the vote, saying the constitution must be first amended to allow a sitting army chief to run for the post. But Berri rejected their requests.

Lebanon's constitution bans serving top government officials, including army commanders, from becoming president.

The parliament should have to amend the constitution, but experts said this time around is an exception because the president's post is vacant.

The voting in secret ballot got under way shortly after the objections were raised. A roll call of legislators present was read aloud, and each deposited a ballot in the box.