Lebanon’s deeply divided politicians yesterday failed to elect a president, leaving the country without a head of state for the first time since the end of the civil war and facing an uncertain security situation.

Emile Lahoud, the outgoing, pro-Syrian president, issued a statement hours before his term expired at midnight saying that “the conditions for a state of emergency” existed and that he “entrusted the army to maintain security”.

The ruling anti-Syrian bloc called the president’s statement “unconstitutional”. Several ministers emphasised that the channels between the government and the army were open and that they were in control. Michel Sleiman, the army commander, did not comment.

The western-backed government and the opposition, led by the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Hizbollah movement, had earlier appeared to have worked out a deal for a limited interim period in which neither side would change the status quo.

The US administration issued a statement supporting the government and praising the army and the security services for their “commitment to ensuring law and order during this interim period”. It also called for the rapid election of a new president.

Few people ventured on to the streets of Beirut and army and police surrounded government buildings and parliament, as tensions between the supporters of rival camps remained high. An agreement to attempt a new vote next week helped allay concerns of a confrontation but led to speculation that the crisis could overshadow next week’s peace conference in Annapolis.

After Nabih Berri, the powerful pro-Hizbollah speaker of parliament, announced a week-long postponement of the election, the anti-Syrian majority speculated that Damascus had instructed its allies to delay the vote until after next week’s conference. This would allow Syria to use Lebanon as a bargaining chip at Annapolis.

Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and one of the most prominent members of the ruling anti-Syrian 14 March bloc, said after the announcement that the government reserved the right to elect a president but would try to do so “without breaching consensus”.

The president’s limited powers would fall to the cabinet in the absence of a replacement but both the opposition and President Lahoud had vowed not to let that happen.

The crisis in Lebanon, which goes back to the assassination in 2005 of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister, pits Syria and Iran against the US and its allies. Hizbollah accuses the majority politicians of being US puppets and has said it will resist a president “imposed by Washington”.

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