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Aoun Sets Back Anti-Syrian Opposition

June 13, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ A Christian general who returned from exile just five weeks ago made a surprisingly strong showing in the third round of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections that set back the main anti-Syrian opposition’s quest for a majority, results released Monday showed.

Former military commander Michel Aoun was exiled 14 years ago for fighting the Syrian army but then formed an alliance with pro-Syrian elements for these elections. He and his allies won 21 of the 58 seats contested in the central and eastern regions Sunday, Interior Minister Hassan al-Sabei said. unraveled

The main anti-Syrian opposition alliance, led by Druse leader Walid Jumblatt and the son of assassinated former premier Rafik Hariri, had 19 seats going into the third round and needed an additional 46 for a majority in the 128-seat parliament. But Jumblatt’s list won only 27 seats on Sunday, giving them a total of 46 that fell far short of a majority.

The anti-Syrian bloc still has a chance to clinch a majority in the fourth and final round of voting Sunday in the north where the remaining 28 seats will be decided.

The pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies now have 33 seats. In the first and second round of elections on May 29 and June 6, the militant Shiite group won a seat in Beirut and swept with its allies 22 of the 23 seats at stake in southern Lebanon. They won 10 more in the eastern Bekaa Valley in the latest round.

Hariri’s Feb. 14 assassination sparked massive street protests at home and international anger abroad that eventually forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon. Many had expected the main opposition alliance headed by Hariri’s son, Saad, to win control of the legislature and rid it of the last vestiges of Syrian control.

But Aoun’s victory guarantees he will be a key player in the new parliament. It was not immediately clear, however, whether he would support the main opposition, but his spokesman, Elias Zoghbi, dismissed concerns that his good showing was a victory for Syria.

``The general’s triumph is a triumph for all Lebanon,″ Zoghbi told The Associated Press.

The 69-year-old Aoun said late Sunday he was willing to talk to other factions in the new parliament. If he did not reach agreement, he and his pro-Syrian allies would sit in opposition to the government.

Aoun returned to Lebanon last month after Syria’s withdrawal, following 14 years in exile, most of it in France.

The Lebanese Army general, who vainly fought the Syrians and their allies in the 1975-90 civil war, moved quickly Monday to consolidate alliances for the final round of voting. He met former Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh, a staunch pro-Syrian who has allied himself with the general. He also visited former Prime Minister Omar Karami, also a pro-Syrian.

Aoun rejected accusations by Jumblatt that he was a Syrian tool for undermining the opposition and an extremist.

``I am extremist in defending Lebanon ... defending justice and the rights of the people,″ Aoun said Monday in the northern town of Ehden.

Late Sunday, Aoun said the priorities of his Free Patriotic Movement would be a new election law, a shorter mandate for parliament than the existing four years, and an audit of the government.

Sunday’s election took place in mountain towns overlooking the Mediterranean that were the scene of vicious combat during the civil war, and in farming communities in the eastern Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border.

Aoun appeared to have benefited from a combination of his alliances with pro-Syrians and his own credibility as an outsider who challenged established politicians.

He campaigned on a platform to fight the corruption he blames for Lebanon’s economic ills, including a national debt of more than $30 billion. He started off as part of the anti-Syrian bloc, then switched to a pro-Syrian slate, saying his feud with Damascus was over now that Syrian troops had left Lebanon.

The campaign has led to some surprising alliances.

In some electoral districts, anti-Syrians ran against anti-Syrians, with each side forging alliances with pro-Syrians to defeat the other.

Aoun challenged tickets backed by Jumblatt, who himself formed alliances with pro-Syrian factions including the Shiite Muslim Amal and Hezbollah.

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