Lebanon has entered a decisive week during which its parliament is due to elect a new president.
With tanks and troops deployed on the streets, many fear a crisis could spark greater political tensions and trigger unrest in a country still suffering the consequences of its devastating 1975-1990 civil war.
Many are warning that the country risks sliding into chaos if the political vacuum persists.
Hezbollah has contested the Lebanese government’s decision to take charge of presidential powers.
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, from whose Maronite community Lebanese presidents are drawn, said during his Sunday sermon,: ‘We are now in an interim period which may lead us to stability, or to chaos and confrontation.’
President Emile Lahoud, left Friday at the end of his term after parliament failed to elect his successor amid continued deadlock between the Western-backed ruling majority and the opposition, supported by Syria and Iran.
Politicians have vowed to reach an agreement over a consensus president by the time a parliamentary session convenes next Friday, but there has been no tangible progress.
‘Everybody – especially those responsible for brokering an agreement – are asked to show seriousness and honest patriotism,’ the cardinal said.
The government, which is considered illegitimate by the opposition since the resignation of all Shi’ite cabinet members last year, effectively took charge of running Lebanon on Saturday.
The powerful Syrian-backed opposition Hezbollah party on Sunday contested the government’s decision to take charge of presidential powers.
Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s government ‘does not exist, cannot rule and cannot take over from the presidency,’ it said.
The army, which has steered clear of comment on political developments, has been maintaining order on the streets of Lebanese cities ever since the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri that led to massive protests.
The crisis arises from the regional confrontation pitting the United States against Lebanon’s former powerbroker Syria and its main regional ally Iran.
Some Lebanese officials believe that the standoff over the presidency will be resolved only after this week’s US-hosted Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
Syria was forced to end 29 years of military domination in Lebanon after it was blamed for the assassination of Hariri, charges it has repeatedly denied.Damascus is now accused by the ruling majority in Lebanon of seeking to regain political influence through its Lebanese allies.
Meanwhile, US President George W Bush said on Sunday he was ‘personally committed’ to resolving the decades-old Middle East conflict.
The Israeli and Palestinian leaders want to agree a joint statement to unblock the peace process, frozen since Bill Clinton tried to broker a final settlement in 2000.
Bush separately hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas ahead of the peace conference in nearby Annapolis which was attended by about 40 countries including Israel’s leading Arab foe Syria.
Major differences remain between the Israelis and Palestinians over the status of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital, the borders of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Olmert’s spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Bush’s ‘presence at the Annapolis meeting and his two-state vision offers a strong support for our cause and the Palestinians’ ability to mark progress in the talks’.
Abbas’s advisor Nabil Shaath said that ‘this is an opportunity to return the spotlight to the Arab-Israeli question.
Criticism of the Saudi presence at the conference by Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad and a blunt refusal by the Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip to recognise the meeting’s decisions have made preparations difficult.
There have been painstaking negotiations over the joint statement outlining a solution to the conflict which the two sides wish to present at the conference.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday met Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian former prime minister Ahmed Qorei in a last-ditch bid to unblock the talks over the document.
Qorei said late Sunday that ‘we are working seriously in order to reach a joint statement’.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack cautioned that he would ‘not be surprised’ if they failed to bridge their gaps before the conference starts.
Bush has worked to persuade some 50 countries and organisations – including key Arab states – to attend
In a coup for US diplomacy, a reluctant Saudi Arabia will sit at the same table with the Jewish state for the first time..
Saudi Arabia has never recognised Israel and no senior official of the kingdom has held public talks with Israeli officials except for meetings at the United Nations and a 1996 international summit on fighting terrorism.
The Iranian leader telephoned King Abdullah to tell him that he wished Saudi Arabia was not taking part in the conference, which he described as part of ‘the plots and deception of the Zionist enemy’.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also weighed in, predicting that the negotiations were ‘doomed to failure’.
The Iranian-backed Hamas movement stuck to its tough line rejecting any concessions to Israel.
‘The decisions taken at Annapolis are not binding on the Palestinian people, who have not authorised anyone, either Arab or Palestinian, to erase their rights,’ Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said.
Hamas, along with the smaller Islamic Jihad group, planned to convene a ‘counter-conference’ later in the day to warn the Palestinian leadership not to make any concessions to Israel.
The Annapolis conference has been given a strong boost, however, by the decision of Iran’s main Arab ally Syria to attend, following what it said were assurances that its demands for the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights would be on the agenda.
But Syrian official newspapers said yesterday that Damascus was ‘under no illusions’ about Annapolis, which they noted risked turning into ‘another new missed opportunity.’
Abbas advisor said that Palestinians hoped to achieve a clear international commitment to start negotiations on a permanent peace deal immediately after the meeting.
White House national security advisor Stephen Hadley said Bush ‘will make very clear that this effort has his support, and is a top priority for the remaining time in his second term,’ but he will not impose solutions.