BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamist militants who attacked parts of Lebanon this year could have drawn it into civil war, army chief General Jean Kahwaji said in an unusually direct and political speech published on Friday.
Kahwaji paid tribute to soldiers killed and wounded in battles which prevented what he described as a militant plot to take over parts of the small Mediterranean country.
"Lebanon's physical integrity is threatened with the most dangerous terrorist plot in the whole region," he said in an address to soldiers on Thursday marking the anniversary of Lebanon's 1943 independence.
Islamic State and Al Qaeda's Nusra Front - both Sunni Muslim groups fighting in the civil war in neighboring Syria - attacked the Lebanese border town of Arsal in August and took a group of soldiers captive. Militants also clashed with the army in the coastal city of Tripoli last month.
Authorities fear hardline Sunni Muslim groups are trying to expand land they control into Lebanon, draw in local fighters and further exacerbate sectarian divisions in the country that was ripped apart by its own civil war from 1975-1990.
Islamic State has said it wants to re-draw borders across the region and set up a caliphate.
"You thwarted a dream of creating an emirate of darkness from the nation's eastern border to the sea," Kahwaji said in the address distributed to journalists on Friday.
"If it had succeeded, it would have led to damaging sectarian events in all of Lebanon and drawn us into the vortex of a civil war more serious than some might imagine," he added.
Kahwaji said the army would not back down. "Our decision is clear, the war against these organizations continues," he said.
Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah has also sent fighters over the border to back up the Syrian army and has occasionally fought with Nusra Front on Lebanese soil. Political and religious leaders have warned Lebanese communities against turning on one another.
Kahwaji said he hoped Lebanon would be able to elect a president as soon as possible. The post has been left vacant for months because parties have been unable to decide on a consensus candidate for the post in a deepening political stalemate.
The election of a president would help institutions function and allow "national life to return to its normal course," Kahwaji said. It is unusual for the army to comment directly on the political situation in the country.
Editing by Andrew Heavens