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Karami: Lebanon's long-serving premier

Rashid Karami, who was killed yesterday when a bomb exploded in the helicopter in which he was riding, was Lebanon's longest-serving prime minister and a champion of Muslim demands for political equality with Christians. Karami, a Sunni Muslim, served as prime minister 10 times in 32 years, beginning in 1955 when, at age 34, he was the youngest man ever to hold that office. He was called upon for the 10th time in April 1984, when President Amin Gemayel, under Syrian pressure, chose him to head a ``national unity'' government.

In recent years, Karami had consistently sided with Syria, now the main power broker in Lebanon. This put him in conflict with Mr. Gemayel, who in January 1986 rejected a Syrian-backed peace pact for Lebanon.

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Under the unwritten national covenant of 1943 - agreed upon by the nation's religious communities at the time of independence from France - the President is always a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. Muslims, who make up about 55 percent of the population, have been fighting for an equal share of power with the Christians, the traditionally dominant political force. Karami was born on Dec. 30, 1921, in the village of Miriyata outside Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. His father was the senior Sunni religious figure in Tripoli and himself served as prime minister in 1945. The young Karami studied law in Cairo, was elected to parliament in 1951 from Tripoli, and began a meteoric political career. He was Lebanon's justice minister before his first appointment as prime minister.

Though personally a conservative, Karami backed Arab nationalist followers of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, and he always had good links to the Lebanese left. He was a strong supporter of efforts to modernize Lebanon. Sometimes criticized for his stubborn optimism, Karami was a shrewd statesman who survived countless ups and downs in Lebanon's troubled history.

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