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Lebanon s new president calls for unity as he starts in office

BEIRUT, May 26 – Lebanon’s new president Michel Sleiman prepared for his first full day in office Monday after hearing his appeal for unity in the violence-hit country endorsed on all sides by the international community.

"Let us unite… and work towards a solid reconciliation," the 59-year-old former army chief said after being sworn in following his election by parliament on Sunday.

"We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it hand-in-hand."

With his election hailed as the start of a new era, nations on different sides of the political divide seemed united in wishing Sleiman well in his mission.

The celebrations came just days after a bitter political feud had threatened to plunge the nation into civil war.

On Sunday, celebratory shots were fired into the air and fireworks lit up the sky as crowds of people, cheering and waving Lebanese flags, poured into streets across Lebanon, including Beirut and Sleiman’s home town of Amsheet.

Welcoming Sleiman’s election, US President George W. Bush said he looked forward to "an era of political reconciliation" in Lebanon.

Washington has given staunch backing to the Sunni-led government in its 18-month standoff with the mainly Shiite Muslim Hezbollah-led opposition.

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On the other side of the political divide, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad telephoned Sleiman to congratulate him and had promised that Damascus was "at Lebanon’s side," according to a report on Lebananese television.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, also welcomed Sleiman’s election. Syria and Iran back Hezbollah, the Shiite group which spearheads the Lebanese opposition.

"All countries in the region, be they Arab or Islamic, are overwhelmed with joy and pride at this glorious and blessed agreement," Mottaki said Sunday.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he hoped the "historic" vote would lead to the "revitalization of all of Lebanon’s constitutional institutions and a return to political dialogue."

The Slovenian presidency of the European Union also welcomed Sleiman’s election and pledged its support for Lebanese "unity and stability."

"The Presidency of the EU reaffirms its support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, unity and stability," a statement said.

Sleiman was elected by 118 votes in a much-delayed parliament session attended by Arab and Western dignitaries that followed a deal hammered out Wednesday in Qatar between the rival Lebanese politicians.

"This is a historic moment," said parliament speaker and opposition stalwart Nabih Berri. "I ask God to help you succeed in steering the Lebanese ship to a safe haven… today no-one in the world can turn Lebanon into a killing field."

Sleiman’s main challenge will be to impose himself as a neutral figure and reconcile the ruling coalition and the opposition — and their respective international backers, analysts say.

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After Sleiman was sworn in, the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora resigned in line with the constitution but will stay on in a caretaker role.

Bickering between the two camps had left the presidency vacant since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud’s term ended in November. Nineteen previous attempts to get lawmakers together to elect a successor failed.

With Sleiman elected, the rival sides will now form a national unity government in which the opposition has veto power, and draft a new electoral law for a parliamentary election due next year.

The accord came after street battles this month between Hezbollah and their allies and pro-government forces left 65 people dead, the deadliest sectarian violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

At one point it had threatened to spiral into all-out conflict after Hezbollah, the most powerful armed group in Lebanon, seized control of mainly Sunni west Beirut.

Sleiman said he would seek friendly relations with Syria, Lebanon’s former powerbroker which has been accused by Washington of stoking the crisis.

As president — a position reserved for a Maronite Christian under Lebanon’s multi-confessional system — Sleiman will have to tread a fine line to keep the neutrality he maintained during 10 years as army chief.

Of the 127 MPs who voted, six cast blank ballots and several voted for other politicians, including slain Rafiq Hariri and other MPs killed since 2005.

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