Page last updated at 14:55 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 15:55 UK

Profile: General Michel Suleiman

General Michel Suleiman, the consensus choice for Lebanon's vacant presidency, is widely seen as a unifying figure in the country.

Michel Suleiman
General Suleiman has the respect of all sides in Lebanon

The head of Lebanon's army is regarded by the country's rival political factions as a relatively neutral figure, and in times of political crisis he has been credited with keeping the army on the sidelines.

He has called on the 56,000-strong army to ignore politics and "listen to the call of duty".

Until relatively recently, Gen Suleiman kept a low public profile.

His apparent neutrality has earned him the respect of supporters of both the Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

He is also a Maronite Christian, and under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, the presidency is reserved for a member of that particular sect.

On the sidelines

Michel Suleiman was born in the town of Amshit in Jbeil in 1948.

2005 protests
Anti-Syrian protesters poured into the streets in 2005
A married father-of-three, he holds a Bachelor of Arts in politics and administrative sciences from the Lebanese University. He speaks both French and English.

He had a rapid rise through the ranks at a time when Syria exerted a dominating influence over the army.

In the early-to-mid 1990s, he commanded an infantry brigade which engaged in violent confrontations with the Israeli army in southern Lebanon.

In 1998, he was appointed commander of the armed forces, with Syrian approval, when Emile Lahoud left that post to take over as president.

At that time, the army was co-operating with the armed wing of Hezbollah to counter the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Israeli troops withdrew from the region in 2000.

Gen Suleiman also oversaw the army's deployment near the border with Israel after Hezbollah fought a war with Israel in 2006. Since then, however, he has distanced himself from Islamist militants.

The army chief is believed to maintain contacts with Syria. However, analysts says his independence has grown as Syria's hold on the country has weakened.

Palestinian camp
The general rose to prominence after the battle of Nahr al-Bared
In 2005, he won praise for keeping the army on the sidelines during the political upheaval following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He refused to crush the massive anti-Syrian protests that gripped Beirut during the spring of 2005, helping to force the Syrian military out of Lebanon.

Two years later, Gen Suleiman rose to national prominence after the army battled and defeated al-Qaeda-inspired militants in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in the north of the country.

Four months of fighting left more than 420 people dead, including nearly 170 soldiers. Dozens of Islamist fighters were also captured.

At the end of the operation, pictures of a victorious Gen Suleiman graced roadside billboards, with the words: "At your command."

The broad backing for the army and its leader helped Gen Suleiman's emergence as a candidate for the presidency.

Army split fears

He has not, however, been without his critics. He angered anti-Syrians after dismissing claims that the Nahr al-Bared Islamist fighters had been backed by Damascus.

He has also been accused by detractors for not getting the military to clamp down on weapons being smuggled to Hezbollah along the Syrian border.

Gen Suleiman was also recently criticised for not doing enough to intervene in the most recent violence, in which Hezbollah fighters crushed government supporters and briefly seized part of the capital.

Analysts say, however, that such intervention could have resulted in the army splitting along sectarian lines.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut said that the army managed to maintain its unity, but only at the cost of the huge, and for some humiliating, compromise involved in standing by and watching Hezbollah and its unruly allies storming Sunni streets and assets in central and west Beirut.

Gen Suleiman has long argued that the army's role is to maintain the country's peace and stability - and not "get muddled in politics".

In a recent tour of troop positions in the south of the country, Gen Suleiman stressed his belief that "involving the army in internal clashes only serves the interests of Israel".

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