( AP ) - Gen. Michel Suleiman has seen many crises in his nine years as the chief of Lebanon's military. He fought Islamic militants, calmed sectarian violence and deployed his army in Hezbollah strongholds along the Israeli border for the first time in decades.
Perhaps most important is what he hasn't done: Take sides in the bitter struggle for power among Lebanon's anti- and pro-Syrian politicians.
For many, that has made him the ideal compromise candidate to become president, a post that was left dangerously empty after Emile Lahoud's term ended last week with Lebanon's divided factions unable to agree on a successor.
Suleiman, 59, was appointed head of Lebanon's army in 1998 and was considered a supporter of Syria, which dominated the country through thousands of troops stationed in Lebanon.
But as Damascus' power diminished, Suleiman emerged more independent, earning respect from supporters of both U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the opposition, led by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.
His reputation as a neutral protector began two years ago, when massive street demonstrations against Syria's rule were sparked by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Some blame Syria for Hariri's killing - a claim Damascus denies.
Suleiman refused to use the military to put down the rallies, which helped force Syria to withdraw its troops, ending its 29-year control of the country.
But since then, Lebanon's sectarian tensions have increased, with Sunni Muslims largely backing Saniora's anti-Syrian government, Shiites supporting the pro-Syrian opposition and Christians divided.
Suleiman, a Maronite Catholic, won praise for keeping the army together and deterring violence. In January, he imposed a curfew to put down a flare-up of Sunni-Shiite clashes that killed 11 people.
He earned admiration over the summer for the army's defeat of Fatah Islam, an al-Qaida-inspired militant group that fought in a Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp.
He also distanced himself from Hezbollah, which once had close cooperation with the military. Last year, he raised the country's flag on a ridge overlooking the Israeli border and vowed to prohibit attacks from Lebanon that could undermine the cease-fire that ended the 34-day Hezbollah-Israel war.
But he is not without his detractors. The military, lacking equipment, stayed on the sidelines of that war, unable to counter either Israel or Hezbollah. Others accuse the military of not doing enough to stop weapons smuggling to Hezbollah along the Syrian border.
Still, Suleiman's popularity continued to rise after he pledged to maintain security amid the political deadlock over replacing Lahoud. He called on his 56,000-strong army to ignore the politics "and listen to the call of duty."
"The nation is at stake and you are its defenders. Do not be lenient and do not be inactive," he said.