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Syrian-backed government in Lebanon faces big setback


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Ousted Prime Minister Rafik Hariri dealt a crushing electoral blow to Lebanon's Syrian-appointed government in the final round of parliamentary voting yesterday, early results indicated, sweeping all of Beirut's seats and gaining a powerful majority of backers in parliament.

Hariri, a billionaire who tried to rebuild Lebanon after its devastating civil war, hopes to again lead the government of Lebanon, where political fortunes depend heavily on the desires of neighboring Syria.

Candidates backed by Hariri made a strong showing in the first stage of voting a week ago and appeared to be doing well again in yesterday's election, the final stage of voting. Residents of the former Israeli-occupied zone in the south voted for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Official vote results are to be announced today.

In a modern, extravagantly financed campaign the likes of which this traditionally clan-dominated city has never seen, thousands of the multibillionaire's supporters swarmed the streets, showering passing cars with palm cards listing his ticket. Twelve hours of crisscrossing the city turned up only four workers in orange T-shirts distributing cards for his Sunni Moslem rival, Prime Minister Salim Hoss.

"Eighteen of 18," Salim Diab, Hariri's campaign manager, said an hour after the polls closed, slumping back tired but proud in his operations room as supporters danced and cheered outside.

Diab said Hariri's operation had 8,000 workers on the streets of Beirut yesterday, with about 3,000 cars and cabs to ferry voters to the polls. Ambulances were available to take the ill.

Although the voting, in one of the bitterest campaigns ever here, will not eliminate Syria's hold on Lebanon, it would appear to drastically alter the political status quo.

In essence, Hariri defeated the two men handpicked as Lebanon's leaders two years ago by Bashar el Assad, the untried 34-year-old president of Syria, during his internship here in preparation for assuming the mantle of his father, the late Hafez el Assad, who had run both countries with ruthless skill.

President Emile Lahoud, the Maronite Catholic former military commander that the young Assad chose in 1998, detests Hariri and mounted a strong campaign with all the government's resources against him, including hours of denunciation on the state run television station.

Hoss, a Sunni Muslim political fixture for decades, lost his seat in parliament despite efforts by Syria to break Beirut into three electoral districts to guarantee his victory.

An academic, Hoss is widely regarded as a decent and honest man, unusually immune to corruption. But he is also viewed as ineffective.

In what many analysts see as the most significant aspect of the upset, Hoss and Salam, according to the early results, were swept away in the landslide.

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