Lebanon delays its election despite US demands

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Beirut survived its "celebration" of the start of the 15-year Lebanese civil war but pro-Syrian members of the country's government failed to form a new cabinet, meaning that the national elections scheduled for May will have to be postponed - despite the demand of Presidents George Bush and Jacques Chirac that they be held on time.

While thousands of opposition supporters therefore demonstrated in favour of "unity", the demands of their leaders seemed likely to be ignored.

This is far more serious than it might appear. While the country remains leaderless, the possibility of further provocations to restart the 1975-90 civil war grows. A 30kg bomb was found on a truck in the Bekaa Valley at the weekend; a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a bank in the suburban town of Dour Cheir. In east Beirut, there remain pockets of men calling themselves "vigilantes" - supposedly dedicated to the protection of Christian property from further bomb attacks - who look suspiciously like a revival of the old Phalangist militia.

Ghazi Aridi, a close adviser to Walid Jumblatt, the opposition leader who led Druze fighters in the civil war, said Prime Minister Omar Karami's useless second attempt to form a government - he crept off miserably to his home town of Tripoli after admitting failure - was "a scheme to postpone the elections". This kind of political disgrace, of course, was one of the principal reasons why hundreds of thousands of Lebanese demonstrated last month.

Only 4,000 Syrian troops remain in the Bekaa Valley in the east and their withdrawal is taking place faster than expected. In some cases, civilians have led their families to the Syrian dungeons where they were tortured more than a decade ago. But anger that the retreat was taking so long has now been replaced with concern about its speed.

But if President Emile Lahoud, Syria's most faithful friend, remains leader, and the ghost of the pro-Syrian cabinet is merely waiting to reconstitute itself, what will have been the purpose of the Syrian withdrawal?

The "loyalists" - ironically, the name of the Lebanese loyal to Syria - are hoping a delay will allow the more disreputable opposition leaders to split the movement. Lahoud, it is said, looks forward to the return from exile in Paris of the messianic Maronite general, Michel Aoun, whose pretentions to be president in 1990 cost 1,000 lives and who fled to the French embassy in his pyjamas when Syrian bombers attacked his palace. Aoun, Lahoud is said to believe, will surely break the opposition apart, alienating its Druze and Sunni followers.

This may be wishful thinking. But over the weekend, the Hizbollah - still allied to Syria - sent a pilotless drone 50 miles over Israel, bringing the aircraft safely back to Lebanese territory. It was a militarily pointless exercise but contributed greatly to the fear that it may be trying to provoke another conflict with Israel. The movement's leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, astonished Lebanese yesterday by appealing in an open newspaper letter to M. Chirac for help in preserving the country's unity. Chirac and Bush pushed for the UN resolution which demanded the disarming of Hizbollah. Wondrous things are thus happening in Lebanon; their results may be less than wonderful.

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