A parliamentary vote amending Lebanon’s constitution to allow President Lahoud to extend his term in office by three years has triggered a political storm over Syria’s role in the country.

Four ministers resigned in protest at Syrian interference in Lebanon’s affairs after the Beirut parliament approved a bill to amend the constitution and allow the president to extend his six-year term in office, which ends in November.

Economy and Trade Minister Marwan Hamadah, Culture Minister Ghazi Aridi and Displaced Persons Minister Abdallah Farahat, all from Walid Jumblatt’s secular leftist Druze bloc, as well as the Christian Environment Minister Fares Boueiz, all resigned after parliament passed the amendment by 96 votes to 29 on 3 September.

Lahoud’s supporters have been campaigning for months for the change to the constitution, which, until the vote, barred presidents from serving successive terms. In late August, Lahoud confirmed that he wanted a mandate extension in order to complete his political and administrative reform programme.

The change has been widely criticised, with opponents saying the decision comes from Damascus and has been imposed on Lebanese officials. Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who had been opposed to the amendment, and who threatened to step down if it was passed, appears to have been convinced to go along with it following a meeting with Syrian President Asad in Damascus in late August.

The issue succeeded in uniting Paris and Washington, who co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution passed on 2 September criticising Syria’s domination of its smaller neighbour. Resolution 1559 calls for Lebanon’s sovereignty and political independence to be respected, and demands that all foreign forces withdraw from the country – where Syria has about 17,000 troops.

Diplomatic sources say France’s President Chirac, a friend of Hariri, is one of the principal architects of the resolution. The White House sees the resolution as a way of increasing pressure on Damascus, which it accuses of supporting terrorism.

In a letter to the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the Security Council and to Arab foreign ministers, Foreign Affairs Minister Jean Obeid said the military and political alliance between Lebanon and Syria helps balance pressures, violations and daily threats from the Israeli occupation, which keeps the Middle East in a state of continuous tension.

Syrian state radio said the resolution was part of an Israeli plan to separate the two countries. ‘Separating Syria and Lebanon will allow Israel to impose its hegemony on the Lebanese scene. Israeli threats are part of a broader strategy, which includes Tel Aviv, Washington and Western capitals, aimed at reshaping the region in a way favourable to Israel’s interests.’

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa accused the Security Council of double standards. ‘The Security Council should deal with theprincipal matters related to its competence – monitoring and preserving international peace and security,’ Moussa told reporters after meeting Hariri in Cairo. ‘There are crises in the Middle East which we believe the Security Council has not dealt with, such as the incidents happening in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and Iraq.’