BEIRUT (AP) — Military commanders often ride to power atop a tank. But in Lebanon, the key to army chief Michel Suleiman’s rise to the nation’s presidency has been keeping his men out of the fight.
Gen. Suleiman hasn’t taken sides in the long struggle for power among Lebanon’s feuding politicians — those allied with the United States and the West, and others backed by Syria and Iran.
And that’s what made him the compromise candidate for Lebanon’s top post. Gen. Suleiman was elected yesterday by parliament and later was sworn into office. The spot had been empty since President Emile Lahoud left office in November.
During his nine years as army commander, the 59-year-old Gen. Suleiman has seen many crises. But he kept the army unified through three years of political turmoil that have pushed the country to the brink of civil war. That has earned him the respect of both the majority and the opposition, despite some occasional misgivings.
Gen. Suleiman also kept the army out of sectarian street-fighting that erupted this month between Hezbollah’s Shi’ite supporters and pro-government Sunni loyalists in Beirut and other areas.
But some politicians in the parliamentary majority have criticized the military for watching as Hezbollah swept Sunni areas of Beirut.
Gen. Suleiman defended the army’s neutrality, saying his stance is what prevented further bloodshed. Rival leaders struck a deal brokered by Qatar to elect him and form a national-unity Cabinet — part of a peace deal that ended the fighting.
“By not resorting to the gun to preserve civil peace … it was meant to spare blood and prevent a further split in internal unity,” Gen. Suleiman said a statement issued last week.
Gen. Suleiman is the third military commander to become president since Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943.
Graduating as an officer five years before Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, Gen. Suleiman rose in the ranks to become head of Lebanon’s army in 1998.
He was appointed then because he was considered a supporter of Syria, which dominated Lebanon for 29 years with thousands of troops stationed there. Gen. Suleiman also had backed Mr. Lahoud, also an army commander, to be elected president.
But as Damascus’ power diminished, Gen. Suleiman emerged more independent, earning respect from supporters of both Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the opposition.
His reputation as a neutral protector began three years ago, when massive street demonstrations against Syria’s rule were sparked by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Some blamed Syria for Mr. Hariri’s killing — a claim Damascus denies.
Gen. Suleiman refused to use the military to put down the rallies, which helped force Syria to withdraw its troops and end its control over its tiny neighbor.
But since then, sectarian tensions have increased, with Sunni Muslims largely backing Mr. Siniora’s anti-Syrian government, Shi’ites supporting the pro-Syrian opposition and Christians divided. That exploded into street-fighting earlier this month.
In January 2007, Gen. Suleiman imposed a curfew to put down a flare-up of Sunni-Shi’ite clashes that killed 11 people.
He later earned admiration over the summer for the army’s defeat of Fatah Islam, an al Qaeda-inspired militant group that fought in a Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp. The battle left hundreds dead.
Gen. Suleiman also sought to distance his military from Hezbollah, while deftly continuing to support the militant group’s aim of defending Lebanon against Israel.
In 2006, he raised the country’s flag on a ridge overlooking the Israeli border and vowed to prohibit attacks from Lebanon that could undermine the cease-fire that ended the 34-day Hezbollah-Israel war.
But he is not without his detractors. The military, lacking equipment, stayed on the sidelines of that war, unable to counter either Israel or Hezbollah. Others criticize the military, saying it has not done enough to stop weapons smuggling to Hezbollah along the Syrian border.
Gen. Suleiman warned recently that dragging Hezbollah into internal battles would only serve Israel, which he described as the “enemy.”
Gen. Suleiman is a Maronite Catholic. Lebanon’s power-sharing political system requires the president to be a Christian, alongside a Sunni prime minister and Shi’ite parliament speaker.
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