msnbc.com news services
updated 5/21/2008 5:14:32 AM ET 2008-05-21T09:14:32

Rival Lebanese leaders signed a deal on Wednesday to end 18 months of political conflict that had pushed their country to the brink of a new civil war.

The agreement was reached after six days of Arab-mediated talks in Qatar. It paves the way for parliament to elect army chief General Michel Suleiman as president, filling a post vacant since November because of the political deadlock.

Lebanon's parliament is scheduled to convene on Sunday to elect Suleiman in the role.

The deal between the U.S.-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition resolved a dispute over a parliamentary election law and met the opposition's long-standing demand for veto power in the 30-member cabinet.

81 killed
Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, increased pressure on the ruling alliance this month by routing its followers in a military campaign. The Qatari-led negotiations in Doha built on mediation that ended violence in which 81 people were killed.

It was Lebanon's worst civil conflict since the 1975-1990 war and exacerbated tensions between Shiites loyal to Hezbollah and Druze and Sunni followers of the ruling coalition.

"We have no future other than through internal unity," Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a speech at the signing ceremony.

The anti-Damascus ruling coalition had long refused to meet the opposition's demand for cabinet veto power, saying the opposition was trying to restore Syrian control of Lebanon.

Syria was forced to withdraw troops from Lebanon in 2005 after former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated.

The United States held up the withdrawal as a foreign policy success. But the Hezbollah-led opposition has steadily been increasing pressure on Washington's allies in Lebanon.

Opposition ministers quit Siniora's cabinet in November 2006 in protest at the governing alliance's refusal to meet the demand for veto power.

The resignations stripped the cabinet of all its Shiite members and upset Lebanon's delicate sectarian power-sharing system.

Anti-violence pledge
Hezbollah's military campaign this month further increased pressure on the ruling alliance and forced the government to rescind two measures which the Shiite group viewed as hostile enough to justify a military response.

The deal included a pledge by both sides not to use violence in political disputes, echoing a paragraph in an agreement drafted in Beirut that ended the fighting.

Lebanon has been without a president since Emile Lahoud stepped down in November.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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