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Lebanon's anti-Syria coalition dealt a setback in elections

ALEY, Lebanon—A popular former general emerged from exile to deliver a dramatic setback to powerful anti-Syrian groups Sunday in the most crucial stage of the Lebanese multi-part parliamentary elections.

Early returns indicated that Christian leader Michel Aoun and his allies had won at least 15 of 35 seats being contested in the Christian heartland, and later results were expected to show he had won additional seats.

Meanwhile, in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the pro-Syrian militant group Hezbollah and its allies picked up at least 10 seats, thanks to a strategic alliance with Christian and Druze candidates.

Fifty-eight seats in the 128-seat legislature were up for grabs Sunday. Forty-two seats were selected in the previous two rounds of voting. The final stage of the staggered elections takes place next Sunday in northern Lebanon.

The results shocked Aoun's rivals, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who sounded furious during a live telephone interview with a Lebanese TV station Sunday night. Jumblatt had joined forces with Christian figures opposed to Aoun's candidates.

"I concede that Michel Aoun won, but these results will take us back to 1976 and will allow the Syrians to enter Lebanon all over again," Jumblatt thundered, referring to the year the civil war began.

Aoun, for years the most vocal critic of Syrian interference in Lebanon, returned last month after 15 years of Syria-imposed exile. Notoriously uncompromising in his search for running mates, the general was eventually shunned by other Christian leaders, and his movement joined tickets led by candidates with very close ties to Damascus.

That was a gamble, given the staunchly anti-Syrian public sentiment that culminated in massive street protests that forced the neighboring regime to withdraw from the country it had controlled for three decades.

But the gamble paid off, though many Christians said their support of Aoun was not a pro-Syrian message, but a rejection of Lebanon's controversial confessional system, in which governmental posts are divvied up according to religious sect. Aoun has criticized the system as contributing to the deep-seated divisions that are vestiges of the country's devastating 17-year civil war.

"This is the new Lebanon. We should get rid of those old parties that are based on confessionalism," said Chadi Abdel Nour, 21, who voted for Aoun. "You have to work in the north as well as the south. You have to care about all of Lebanon."

As many as 54 percent of voters turned out in the Christian-dominated Mount Lebanon province, the country's most populous, according to Lebanese interior ministry figures released late Sunday. Voting appeared brisk as Christian residents of verdant mountain villages donned their Sunday best and made their way to schools that served as polling stations.

Aoun's popularity was evident even in Bikfaya, the home base of some of his best-known rivals, the Gemayels, the Maronite Christian family whose Phalangist movement has been at the forefront of Lebanese politics since the 1930s. At a school in Bikfaya, the crowd appeared evenly split between those wearing the orange of Aoun supporters and those wearing the green-and-white that symbolizes loyalty to the Gemayels.

Applause broke out as a convoy of black SUVs arrived carrying former President Amin Gemayel and his son, Pierre, a candidate. Flanked by bodyguards, the Gemayels cast their ballots and paused to kiss and shake hands with their supporters.

The younger Gemayel said he couldn't help but notice the orange-clad Aoun supporters, but insisted his rival had made a grave mistake by allying with pro-Damascus candidates.

"His list is a list that's been protected by the government, the Syrian government, and the Syrian prime minister," Pierre Gemayel said.

Turnout also was high in the heavily Shiite Muslim section of Haret Hreik, where voters in the bright yellow of Hezbollah lined up to vote.

Samia Hajj, a 43-year-old Shiite Muslim housewife, said she isn't traditionally a supporter of either Hezbollah or its recent ally, the more secular Amal party. However, recent U.S. admonitions for Hezbollah to lay down its arms infuriated her, she said, and drove her to vote for the Hezbollah-Amal list as a means of resisting outside influence.

"We are not against America, but we aren't terrorists and we don't like being called terrorists," Hajj said. "When the United States talks like that, it makes us think they are going to interfere here like they did in Iraq. We're not going to let that happen."

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Nada Raad contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LEBANON-ELECTIONS

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