updated 8/27/2004 6:22:06 PM ET 2004-08-27T22:22:06

Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s bid to stay in office overcame a major hurdle Friday when his main political rival, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, agreed to support a constitutional amendment allowing the president to extend his term for three more years, officials said.

The cabinet is scheduled to meet Saturday morning to propose amendments that Parliament will vote on, following a compromise engineered by officials from Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, officials said on condition of anonymity.

Under the deal, Lahoud’s six-year term, which has three months left, will be extended by three years without his having to go to the polls, the officials said, while Hariri’s government will remain in office. If Lahoud’s presidential term had ended, Hariri’s cabinet would automatically have had to resign.

Hariri had been a strong opponent of any constitutional amendment, but he apparently changed his mind after meeting Syria’s top official in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Frustum Ghazale, to discuss the issue Friday, an official said.

Political analysts had speculated that Hariri had few options but to support the bid by Lahoud, who enjoys strong Syrian support, and remain in government as prime minister. To defy Syria is seen as tantamount to political suicide in a country where Damascus still calls the shots.

West urges Syria to stand aside
The move came despite mounting international pressure on Syria, led by the United States, to stay out of the polls, as well as local calls to respect constitutional provisions that forbid a president to stay in office for two consecutive terms.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who arrived Friday in Beirut on a regional tour, said at a joint news conference with Hariri that it was “crucial that Lebanon be preserved as an independent and sovereign nation and state and that all the decisions are based on the constitution and on the free will of your people.”

White House press secretary Scott McClellan had urged Syria to respect the principles of “non-intervention” in Lebanese affairs and noted recent comments from Lebanese religious, political and civic leaders “calling for respect of the Lebanese constitution.”

McClellan said Lebanon’s interests were best served if the “Lebanese people [were left] to decide the fate of their nation and its leadership, without pressure or interference from any outside party.”

The United States has imposed sanctions on Syria for its alleged support of Palestinian militants and the deployment of 20,000 security personnel in Lebanon.

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