By Nadim Ladki  BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud began consultations with parliamentarians on Friday to name a new prime minister to lead the country to a general election set for May. Political sources said the selection of the new prime minister was now a two-horse race between outgoing Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mrad, a staunch ally of Damascus, and the more moderate former minister Najib Mikatti, a wealthy businessman with close ties to Syria. Lebanon has been without a government since Feb. 28, two weeks after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri plunged the country into its worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The crisis has made timely elections increasingly unlikely, much to the ire of anti-Syrian opposition lawmakers who believe the polls will give them a majority in a chamber now dominated by allies of Damascus.

The United States is leading international calls for the polls to be held on time in May.

“It’s in the interest of Lebanon, in the interest of the people of Lebanon, in our view, that these elections take place quickly and we hope that the cabinet formation will take place quickly,” U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman said after talks with Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud.

“The government of Lebanon needs to have a mandate. That can only take place through free and fair and democratic elections.”

Lahoud met representatives of parliamentary blocs and independent MPs who named their choices for prime minister. The president must appoint the candidate who gets most nominations.

Anti-Syrian opposition deputies, a minority in the 128-member house, decided after a meeting to name Mikatti as their candidate.

Three opposition lawmakers, from around 40, refused to back Mikatti but would instead urge Lahoud to hold elections on time.

The new prime minister, who must be a Sunni Muslim, must quickly form a government, win a confidence vote in parliament, draft an election law and get it passed by the assembly all in under two weeks to have any chance of holding the polls before the end of May.


Prime Minister Omar Karami stepped down on Wednesday after he failed to agree a cabinet first with the anti-Syrian opposition and then with pro-Syrian allies.

Syrian forces first entered Lebanon in 1976, early in the civil war, and became the dominant force in the country’s politics in the ensuing 15 years of peace.

Those forces are now streaming out of Lebanon in line a promise to end to Damascus’ 29-year-old military and intelligence presence by April 30, leaving Syria’s allies in Beirut squabbling over what to do next.

Lebanon’s opposition accuse pro-Syrian officials of trying to delay the vote, in which they hope to capitalize on popular sympathy after Hariri’s killing.

The opposition renewed warnings on Friday against delaying the polls, and has said it could call for street protests if the government situation was not resolved next week.


Anti-Syrian protesters have congregated in central Beirut over the past two months, forcing the government to resign and pressuring Syria to quit.

Political sources have said the elections could be pushed back by weeks or months by a delay in forming a government. Parliament’s four-year term ends on May 31. The constitution requires polls be called at least a month before voting day.

If elections are not held in May, parliament can extend its term by several months to avoid a political vacuum.

Syrian military and intelligence forces left a number of positions in the eastern Bekaa Valley overnight, witnesses said. The Lebanese army brought extra troops to the village of Anjar ready to take over Syrian intelligence headquarters there.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Lin Noueihed)