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Term Extension for Lebanese President Sparks Debate - 2004-09-04

The Lebanese parliament's decision to change the constitution and extend the term of Syria-backed President Emile Lahoud, has sparked controversy in Lebanon and abroad. Lebanese analysts say the parliamentary vote and the U.N. resolution that preceded it have called Syria's role in Lebanon into question, and also made Lebanon the forum in which international tensions are being played out.

Ninety six of Lebanon's 125 parliament members voted on Friday to amend the country's constitution and give President Emile Lahoud another three years in office.

The extension of Mr. Lahoud's term was favored by Syria, which has maintained a military presence in Lebanon since 1975 and has the final say on most political decisions there.

According to the editor in chief of the Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star, Rami Khoury, the vote has sparked a widespread debate over the role Syria should play in Lebanon.

"The basic issue is what is the appropriate relationship between the Syrian and Lebanese governments, peoples, countries," said Rami Khoury. "This is the basic issue. It's being very publicly and openly debated now. More and more Lebanese are saying that they're extremely grateful for what Syria has done for Lebanon in terms of stability and allowing it to come out of the post-war years and rebuild, and they're saying but now Syria really shouldn't continue to call the shots in terms of internal Lebanese political decisions."

On Thursday, a day before the vote, the U.S. and France backed a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon and for there to be no interference in the country's presidential elections.

But the U.N. resolution, says Mr. Khoury, was predominantly an American move against Syria, which the U.S. accuses of being a state sponsor of terrorism.

"We shouldn't fool ourselves," he said. "This is not a debate about extending the Lebanese presidency. This is a debate about United States-Syrian relationships and it's an issue that has now come out very much into the open. People are using Lebanon as a proxy arena in which to conduct this battle or this contest between Syria and the U.S."

Some in Lebanon are concerned, said Mr. Khoury, that the country will once again become a battleground between competing outside interests.