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Move will bolster Lebanon president

BEIRUT -- President Emile Lahoud's effort to stay in office for three more years was assured yesterday, when his rival, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, bowed to Syrian pressure and proposed a constitutional amendment allowing Lahoud to extend his term.

The amendment, adopted at a Cabinet meeting yesterday, will be sent to Parliament, where pro-Syrian legislators hold a majority. Lahoud's term expires Nov. 24, and Parliament is likely to meet as early as this week to pass the amendment, extending the president's term without an election.

The president's supporters have said that regional security and political conditions demanded that Lahoud stay in office. Lahoud's opponents have said there was nothing urgent that required the country to amend its constitution.

The amendment was passed despite increasing international pressure on Syria, led by the United States, to keep its hands off. Damascus wants a pro-Syrian president to guarantee its position in Lebanon, which it sees as crucial to its influence and security.

The Syrian Army crossed into Lebanon in 1976, a year after civil war broke out, to prevent a Christian defeat at the hands of Lebanese Muslim forces and Palestinian guerrillas. The Syrians were drawn into the conflict on the side of the Muslims, and the fighting, which included two Israeli invasions, continued for 14 years.

The war ended in 1990, with Syria's army defeating the last Christian holdout to its dominance of Lebanon. Since, the Syrians have become the supreme power, setting policy and mediating among feuding Lebanese politicians, a majority of whom have become allies of Damascus.

Syria said it respected the Lebanese constitution. "Respecting the constitution does not mean it cannot be amended in the framework of the constitution itself," said Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa.

Sharaa spoke in Damascus at a press conference with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, who repeated a call to respect Lebanon's constitution. "Lebanon is a sovereign, independent state, and decisions should be taken on basis of respecting the constitution," Fischer said.

Hariri had been a strong opponent of any constitutional amendment, but he apparently changed his mind after meeting Syria's top official in Lebanon, Brigadier General Rustum Ghazale, the intelligence chief. Without Hariri's approval, the Cabinet could not send the amendment bill to Parliament.

Hariri and Lahoud have been locked in a power struggle over how to run Lebanon. But Lahoud has strong Syrian support. Defying Syria, which has thousands of troops in Lebanon, would be seen as tantamount to political suicide for Hariri in a country where Damascus calls the shots.

Some Lebanese legislators rejected the decision. A lawmaker and presidential candidate, Michael Daher, said amending the constitution is "an unacceptable violation."

Christian opposition legislator Fares Soueid said it was a "black day in the history of Lebanon" and added he would use all democratic means "to express our rejection" of this decision.

The White House and the French Foreign Ministry issued statements Friday opposing foreign interference in Lebanon's political affairs. The White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, urged Syria to respect the principles of "nonintervention."

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