May 26, Sydney Herald Morning

Lebanon's new president, Michel Sleiman, appealed for unity as he was sworn in on Sunday in a first step towards defusing a political feud that threatened to plunge the nation into a new civil war.

"Let us unite ... and work towards a solid reconciliation," the former army chief said after being elected by parliament.

"We have paid dearly for our national unity. Let us preserve it hand-in-hand."

Celebratory shots were fired into the air and car horns hooted as crowds of people, cheering and waving Lebanese flags, poured into the streets of Beirut and Sleiman's hometown of Amsheet.

The election was hailed by US president George Bush, who has given his staunch backing to the Sunni-led government in its 18-month stand-off with the mainly Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah-led opposition.

Sleiman was elected by 118 votes in a much-delayed parliament session attended by Arab and Western dignitaries that followed a deal hammered out on Wednesday in Qatar between the rival Lebanese politicians.

"This is a historic moment," said parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

"I ask God to help you succeed in steering the Lebanese ship to a safe haven... today no-one in the world can turn Lebanon into a killing field."

The main challenge for Sleiman, 59, will be to impose himself as a neutral figure and reconcile the Western-backed ruling coalition and the opposition, which is supported by Iran and Syria.

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photo: New leader ... General Michel Sleiman ( AFP)