BEIRUT - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is on an unannounced trip to Lebanon to bring Obama administration support to the country's government as it confronts severe difficulties, with an influx of refugees from next door in Syria and a political stalemate at home.
Kerry arrived in Beirut on Wednesday to meet with Lebanese officials and others as they deal with both the fallout from the conflict in Syria and a seemingly intractable dispute over who will become the next Lebanese president. Kerry is expected to announce another $290 million in aid for United Nations agencies working on the Syrian refugee issue throughout the region.
Lebanon, home to 4.5 million people, is struggling to cope with the presence of more than a million Syrian and Palestinian refugees in desperate need of housing, education and medical care.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry said that in addition to discussing the refugee issue with Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Tammam Salam and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the secretary would also press them to deal with the political crisis that has left the country without a president since last month.
Lebanon requires a "fully functioning" presidency in order to cope with tremendous challenges it faces, the official said, adding that although Washington has no favored candidate, the U.S. would like to see a new president in office as soon as possible.
Kerry is the first secretary of state to visit Lebanon in five years; Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled there in April 2009. Kerry traveled to Lebanon at least four times as a senator since 2006, the last time in November 2010.
The Lebanese are deeply split over the civil war in neighboring Syria and have lined up behind opposing sides in that conflict. Those deep divisions are among the reasons for the lack of agreement on a consensus candidate for the country's next president.
Michel Suleiman's six-year term ended last month but Lebanese politicians have not been able to agree on a successor. Five parliament sessions over several weeks have failed to elect a president because lawmakers allied with the militant Hezbollah group boycotted the meetings.
Lebanon is accustomed to political crisis. It went for months without a president before Suleiman, a former army commander, was elected in 2008.
The absence of a president is chiefly a setback for Lebanon's Christian community, whose influence has significantly waned since the country's 1975-90 war. It also erodes fragile institutions that keep the country several Christian and Muslim sects together.
Under Lebanon's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.
For a parliament to elect the president, a two-thirds quorum -- or 85 of the legislature's 128 members -- is needed, but none of the sessions to choose Suleiman's successor met that requirement.
Consensus has been near impossible. The Shiite group Hezbollah has been fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, while most Lebanese Sunnis broadly support the armed uprising to overturn his rule.
Although he was elected six years ago as a consensus president, Suleiman became a harsh critic of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria and has called on the group's fighters to withdraw from the neighboring country.