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Lebanese Prime Minister accuses opposition of election delay

Fuad Saniora, Prime Minister of Lebanon, accused Hezbollah-led opposition of delaying a presidential election by stating new conditions.

"We should work and push toward carrying out the presidential elections as soon as possible and not shackle the (presidential vote) with obstacles and conditions," Saniora said. "I am confident we are on the verge and at the beginning of a solution."

Saniora's accusations come two days before parliament was to elect a new head of state to replace pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, who left office Nov. 23 without a successor, after rival politicians failed to agree on a compromise president.

They also come against a backdrop of intense attempts to end Lebanon's crisis.

Visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a top international mediator between the feuding Lebanese, arrived Tuesday for a final push to cement a consensus ahead of Friday's session.

Kouchner held a joint meeting Wednesday afternoon with opposition-aligned Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and legislator Saad Hariri, who leads the parliament majority, state-run National News Agency said. The top French diplomat later only said the meeting was long and "rich."

"I'm not saying there were obstacles and I'm not staying there was success," he told reporters, promising to have more news on his mediation efforts Thursday.

Earlier Wednesday, Kouchner met with Saniora and Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the influential Maronite Catholic Christian sect.

He also met with army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman, who has emerged as a compromise candidate Lebanon's rival factions managed to agree on, after months of haggling and plunging the country into a political vacuum.

Suleiman won backing from both the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority and Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, who had earlier been a presidential hopeful himself.

But on Monday, Aoun insisted rival sides should first reach a "political understanding" on a future government before setting the stage for Suleiman's election.

The Western-backed parliament majority has seen this as unnecessary stalling.

The 128-seat legislature needs to muster a two-thirds quorum to begin the process of voting.

To elect Suleiman, Parliament needs to amend the constitution to allow an army commander still in office to run for the post. The majority still needs support of some opposition parties, although major groups have already given their backing.

Berri, the parliament speaker, told daily An-Nahar that parliament can amend the constitution and elect Suleiman within two hours. As for Friday's parliament session, Berri said "it is still on time."

Suleiman is seen as a neutral figure who can appeal to both camps and his election would pave the way for a resolution to months of conflict between the U.S.-backed majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition.