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Hezbollah denounces Bush's comments

Lebanon will not implement Bush's "orders" to break a deadlock and pick a president, the group's deputy leader said.

BEIRUT, Lebanon - The militant group Hezbollah denounced President Bush yesterday for urging Lebanon's anti-Syrian lawmakers to push through their own choice for president if necessary to resolve a long political deadlock.

The Western-backed, anti-Syrian bloc has avoided trying to use its slim majority in parliament to elect a president, which would escalate tensions with the opposition, led by Syrian-allied Hezbollah. Bush urged such a step for the first time Thursday.

Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Kassem, said Bush's "orders" will not be implemented in Lebanon.

"Bush still thinks he can bet again on achieving some gains for America and Israel in Lebanon, despite consecutive and accumulated failures in the region," Kassem said, apparently referring to U.S. policies in Iraq and Hezbollah's war last year with Israel.

Lebanon's parliament has failed nine times to elect a president because the Hezbollah-led opposition has boycotted sessions, preventing a two-thirds quorum. The post has been empty since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term ended Nov. 23.

Lawmakers on both sides have agreed to back Gen. Michel Suleiman, as a compromise candidate, but parliament must first amend the constitution to allow the military chief to become president.

The legislature was scheduled to meet today to start that process. But other considerations have complicated hopes for a breakthrough, particularly the opposition's demands for a unity government that would give it veto power over major decisions.

The opposition refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government because its Shiite members resigned last year and the constitution requires that all sects be represented in the government.

Opposition leader Michel Aoun told reporters there would be no vote today "because there is no agreement, and all dialogue lines are broken." There was no official confirmation that the session had been called off.

The current ruling coalition is known as the March 14 group because it brought together leaders from a wide political spectrum in Lebanon for massive anti-Syrian demonstration in March 2005. Those protests, coupled with international pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.

The deadlock in Lebanon has deflated hopes of a warming between the United States and Syria, which participated in the Middle East peace conference last month in Annapolis, Md.

On Thursday, Bush called on Syria to stop interfering in Lebanon's politics. He said that if the Lebanese parliament failed to get a quorum to elect a compromise president, the Western-backed majority should elect its own candidate.

"The March 14th coalition can run their candidate and their parliament; majority plus one ought to determine who the president is. And when that happens, the world ought to embrace the president," Bush said.

The Hezbollah-led opposition says choosing a president without a quorum would violate the constitution.

Bush "gave his direct orders to his group in Lebanon to violate the constitution," Kassem said. "At a time when the Lebanese are trying to reach an accord, he is trying to create problems between them."

"Bush, your orders will not be implemented and your tutelage is rejected," he said.