ALEY, Lebanon - A popular former general emerged from exile to deliver a setback to powerful anti-Syrian groups yesterday in the most crucial stage of Lebanese 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. Later results were expected to show they had won more seats.
In the Bekaa Valley, the pro-Syrian militant group Hezbollah and its allies picked up at least 10 seats after forming an alliance with Christian and Druze candidates.
Fifty-eight seats in the 128-seat Legislature were up for grabs yesterday. Forty-two were selected in the previous two rounds of voting. The final stage of the elections takes place Sunday in northern Lebanon.
The results shocked Aoun's rivals, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who sounded furious during a telephone interview with a Lebanese television station. 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 close ties to Damascus.
That was a gamble, given the anti-Syrian public sentiment that culminated in huge street protests that forced Damascus to withdraw its forces from the neighboring country it had controlled for three decades.
The gamble paid off, though many Christians said their support for Aoun was not a pro-Syrian message but a rejection of Lebanon's controversial 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," 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."
Up to 54 percent of voters turned out in the Christian-dominated Mount Lebanon province, the country's most populous, according to Interior Ministry figures. Voting appeared brisk as Christian residents of mountain villages donned their Sunday best and made their way to schools that served as polling stations.
Turnout also was high in the heavily Shiite Muslim section of Haret Hreik.
Samia Hajj, 43, a Shiite housewife, said she isn't usually a supporter of Hezbollah or its recent ally, the 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 way 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."