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Lebanon prime minister to resign amid disarray

BEIRUT -- Unable to enlist opposition members to join his Cabinet, Lebanon's pro-Syria prime minister, Omar Karami, said yesterday that he intends to step down in the coming days. Political opponents expressed concern that the government was trying to postpone parliamentary elections planned for this spring.

Karami, who resigned at the end of February only to be renominated 10 days later, made the announcement after informing the parliament speaker that he had been unable to form the unity government he promised when he returned to office. He said he intended to inform President Emile Lahoud, whose term was extended under Syrian pressure last year, of his decision at a meeting today.

The announcement underscored Lebanon's political disarray since the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, which many here blame on Syria and senior Lebanese officials supportive of Syria's three-decade presence in its smaller neighbor.

Huge public demonstrations led Karami to resign two weeks after Hariri and 17 others were killed in a bombing along Beirut's waterfront.

His renomination by the largely pro-Syrian parliament angered Lebanon's opposition alliance of Christian, Druze, and Sunni Muslim parties. They had demanded his resignation and the firing of Lebanon's intelligence and security chiefs following Hariri's assassination. Karami pledged upon returning to office that he would remain in the post only if opposition members joined his Cabinet, so a unity government could guide the country through parliamentary elections that must be held before the end of May.

Opposition leaders refused to participate, however. With swelling support, they are increasingly confident they can gain much ground in the elections, perhaps even winning a majority in the 128-member parliament. The opposition coalition now controls roughly one-third of that body.

''This is a good move, because he was part of the problem," Ghattas Khoury, a member of parliament aligned with Hariri's legislative bloc, said of Karami's decision. ''But the whole point of this now is to delay the elections. That's what this is all about."

The opposition has refused to join the government until its demands are met. Those include the naming of an international commission to investigate Hariri's assassination and the resignation of Lebanon's intelligence chiefs. Yesterday, the head of Lebanese army intelligence, Raymond Azar, was placed on a one-month administrative leave. Some opposition members interpreted the move as a way of easing Azar out and pledged to continue pushing for the resignations of the remaining intelligence chiefs.

Lebanon's parliament has yet to pass an elections law setting dates and districts for voting, although legislators say it could be done in two sessions once the nearly complete bill is introduced. Karami and his supporters in parliament have refused to introduce the measure, citing the inability to form the cabinet.

Opposition legislators argue that a caretaker government such as the one now in office can legally oversee elections because the process is set out in the constitution.

Several opposition members said yesterday that they would participate in selecting a prime minister this time after declining to consult with Lahoud in the process that led to Karami's return. During a meeting scheduled for tomorrow, opposition leaders intend to select four or five candidates. All of them must be Sunnis under the terms of the power-sharing agreement that ended Lebanon's sectarian civil war 15 years ago. They will ask Lahoud to choose from the list, which opposition leaders said would include only neutral figures.

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