Lebanon elects head of state

Lebanon's parliament elected a new president yesterday, taking a step to stabilize the country after a long, violent political crisis and ushering in a shift in the balance of power in favor of Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

The election of army chief Michel Suleiman brought palpable relief to ordinary Lebanese who feared in recent weeks that their country was in danger of breaking up in another civil war.

Celebratory gunfire reverberated across the capital Beirut as the election was announced in the early evening. Glittering fireworks lit the night sky over downtown Beirut a couple hours later as cars formed motorcades and honked their horns.

One motorcade was adorned with fluttering Qatari flags and pictures of the emir of Qatar, who brokered the deal last week that ended an 18-month political deadlock between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the Western-backed government.

"I call on you all, people and politicians, for a new beginning," Suleiman said after he was sworn in. "Let us be united," he said in a speech which was repeatedly interrupted by applause.

"The people have given us their confidence to fulfill their aspirations, not to afflict them with our petty political disputes," he added.

Political bickering prevented parliament from electing a president 19 times, leaving the country without a president for six months since Emile Lahoud left office in November.

Suleiman's election is the first tangible step in the deal to end the political crisis which erupted this month into the worst violence since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

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