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Anti-Syrian bloc claims victory in Lebanese elections

HALBA, Lebanon—A powerful anti-Syrian bloc claimed a sweeping victory Sunday in the last round of Lebanon's parliamentary elections and appeared to have won control of the nation's legislature, sending a resounding message that Syria's grip on Lebanon is over.

"Our forecast is for a clear sweep," said Hani Hammoud, a spokesman for the anti-Syrian coalition. He said he based the claim on exit polls and a count of nearly 40 percent of the vote. "This says the Lebanese people can run their own political destiny," Hammoud said.

A pro-Syrian Christian leader, Suleiman Franjieh, conceded defeat on Lebanese television.

The slate of candidates sponsored by Saad Hariri, the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, took command of the election in seaside towns and mountain villages in northern Lebanon, where dozens of candidates battled for 28 seats. Hariri's slate needed 21 seats to control the 128-member parliament and appeared to have won at least that many.

"We want to see new faces," said Fatima Fiyadh, a 32-year-old Sunni housewife as she cast a ballot for Hariri's slate.

Residents of the picturesque north were the last to vote in a four-stage electoral process that sparked a national debate on the relationship between Beirut and Damascus. In April, Syria ended its 29-year military presence in Lebanon by withdrawing forces under intense international pressure. The abrupt pullout left the remnants of Christian militias, the Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah and Sunni political kingpins competing to fill the power vacuum.

Hariri's chief rival is the popular former army commander Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and relentless critic of the Syrian regime who stunned voters and enraged the anti-Syrian opposition by creating a ticket anchored by politicians with close ties to Damascus. Aoun's gamble paid off in last weekend's voting in the Christian heartland, where his coalition delivered a serious setback to the opposition.

The upset sent Hariri's campaign into overdrive last week, with last-minute rallies and ubiquitous posters of the young, handsome candidate and his beloved father. The campaign was highly visible on Election Day—red-shirted Hariri supporters vastly outnumbering the orange-clad Aoun camp at several polling stations.

"There's not that much support for him out here, but we're hoping he does better in other areas," said Yasser al Badawi, 27, wearing an orange Aoun T-shirt in a sea of red banners and T-shirts at a polling center in the port city of Tripoli. He searched for other Aoun supporters before he gave up and smoked a water pipe with fruit-flavored tobacco with rivals from the Hariri camp.

Against a lush mountain backdrop, jubilant voters in Halba danced in the streets, chanted political slogans and lined up for the polls. Noisy processions of cars plastered with campaign posters snaked through villages with passenger screaming out the windows.

Some voters in this downtrodden Sunni area had even covered a garbage truck with Lebanese flags and posters of Hariri to get out the vote. A gas station in a nearby village offered free fuel to vans carrying voters to the polls.

Residents said they wanted better schools and new hospitals but had a tough time deciding who better to deliver such services: a military strongman or a charismatic newcomer?

"There's Aoun, who's a true Lebanese patriot. He loves his country," said Rima Abdul Ali, a 32-year-old Sunni medical worker from Halba. "Then there's Hariri, who's also good. He's like his father and he also loves his country."

Once at the polls, Abdul Ali said, she decided to pick her favorite candidates from each of the two major slates—a practice repeated by countless other voters. Lebanese citizens can vote outright for a single slate or choose candidates a la carte from the lists. Under the nation's power-sharing system, certain numbers of seats are allotted for Muslims, Christians and other minorities.

Hariri's slate easily swept the first round of elections in Beirut, and candidates allied with Hezbollah effortlessly took southern Shiite strongholds. The last two rounds, however, pitched Hariri allies against Aoun candidates in tight races. Hariri and Aoun themselves won seats in previous rounds.

Aoun was alternately praised as a savvy dealmaker and denounced as a traitor for joining forces with politicians who are cozy with Syria. Hariri crafted a diverse list with politicians who have little in common besides a shared disdain for Syrian interference. Among his main allies were the influential Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the Lebanese Forces, the old Christian militia able to run for office now because Syria's withdrawal meant the lifting of a ban on their activities.

Many observers expect the election-season alliances to fall by the wayside once the new legislators tackle their two most contentious issues: the proposed ouster of the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and the disarming of Hezbollah, as called for by the United States and United Nations.

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

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

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