BEIRUT - Deeply divided Lebanese leaders have postponed a presidential election until Friday to allow more time to agree on a successor to the pro-Syrian incumbent, whose term expires that day.
The delay prolonged a political crisis that many fear could lead to rival administrations and violence in a country still rebuilding from its 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. The army strengthened security yesterday and urged people to avoid internal strife.
Parliament had been due to convene today to elect a successor to President Emile Lahoud, but Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement the vote would be delayed until Friday, the fourth postponement since September.
France has been leading the effort to push rival leaders toward a deal on the presidency, the latest move in a year-long power struggle between factions opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon and others supported by Damascus.
France's foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who has been shuttling between the rivals, expressed hope there was still time to reach a deal.
The French president's chief of staff, Claude Gueant, met Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus to seek support for Paris' efforts, and France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, spoke to Assad by telephone, Sarkozy's office said.
In Beirut, hundreds of soldiers manned roadblocks and deployed armored vehicles around government buildings. "The army has started security arrangements," a senior security source said.
Army chief General Michel Suleiman said: "Any attack on security is national treason and any weapon directed internally is a treacherous weapon."
In a statement to soldiers to mark Independence Day, which is tomorrow, he said the army should pay no attention to arguments "which have almost split the country into scattered parts."
The army is one of the few state institutions that has functioned effectively during the political conflict between the Western-backed governing coalition and the opposition led by Hezbollah and backed by Syria and Iran.
Berri, a key opposition figure, and majority leader Saad al-Hariri have not agreed on any of the names for president proposed by the head of the Maronite church.
Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system requires the head of state to be a Maronite. Political sources say the governing coalition wants parliament member Robert Ghanem for the post while the opposition supports Michel Edde, a former minister.
France, which backs the governing coalition, said on Monday its mediation efforts were being thwarted.
Agreement on the presidency is needed to guarantee a two-thirds quorum for the vote in parliament, where the governing coalition holds an absolute majority of just three.