( AP ) - A senior Hezbollah official said Saturday that the militant group holds army commander Michel Suleiman in high regard, further improving his chances of becoming Lebanon's next president and averting a political crisis.
Hezbollah deputy leader Sheik Naim Kassem's comments came two days after the group's ally, Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun, said he will back Suleiman as a compromise candidate for president.
The parliamentary majority also expressed its support for Suleiman this week, setting up a potential resolution to months of conflict with the Hezbollah-led opposition over choosing President Emile Lahoud's successor
"We, in Hezbollah, ... have a positive view of Gen. Michel Suleiman in addition to our appreciation of Gen. Michel Aoun's stance and consider this alternative as a serious one," the white-turbaned cleric said on Hezbollah's al-Manar TV.
"There is a major opportunity for discussion in order to reach an accord on presidential elections," Kassem added.
Hezbollah officials have in recent days linked their support for any presidential candidate to Aoun's stance. Now that Aoun has publicly supported Suleiman, Kassem's comments were viewed as implicit support for the army commander.
Parliament is scheduled to meet Friday to vote for a new president. For Suleiman to be elected, the Parliament will have to amend the constitution, which prevents senior state employees, including army commanders, from running for the post while in office.
The army chief is seen as a neutral figure who can appeal to both the Western-supported majority and the pro-Syrian opposition, which is backed by Damascus.
The nation's top post has been vacant since pro-Syrian Lahoud left office without a successor on Nov. 23 because the feuding groups could not agree on a compromise candidate.
Failure to elect a president left Lebanon with a leadership vacuum not seen since the civil war, when rival governments ran the country in 1988-89.
The United States, which backs the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, has in the past pressed to end Syria's influence in Lebanon. Syria's allies in Lebanon, in turn, have accused Saniora of selling out the country to the Americans.
Meanwhile, some 5,000 opposition supporters held a rally in downtown Beirut to mark the first anniversary of a sit-in near Saniora's headquarters. The demonstration aimed to unseat Saniora's Western-backed government but has so far failed to do so.
Hezbollah legislator Hussein Hajj Hassan said at the rally that the opposition was ready for an agreement on a compromise president but would continue the sit-in if no agreement was reached.
"The Lebanese national opposition is ready for a political settlement through a compromise president and a partnership government," said Hajj Hassan. "It is also ready, as this rally shows, today to continue with its (current) move."