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Hizbollah chief congratulates winners

Lebanon's pro-Western coalition declares victory after fending off the Shiite militant group Hizbollah and its allies for the majority in parliament.

A flag-waving supporter of Christian politician Samir Geagea and his 'March 14' coalition celebrates after the coalition won in Lebanon's parliamentary election.
A flag-waving supporter of Christian politician Samir Geagea and his 'March 14' coalition celebrates after the coalition won in Lebanon's parliamentary election.

BEIRUT // Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah today acknowledged the defeat of his opposition alliance by a pro-Western bloc in Lebanon's parliamentary election. "We accept the official results in a sporting spirit," he said in a televised address a day after the polls. Nasrallah, appearing graceful in defeat, also congratulated his political rivals. "I would like to congratulate all those who won, those in the majority and those in the opposition," he said. Lebanon's pro-Western coalition declared victory early today, as local television stations reported the faction had successfully fended off a serious challenge by the Shiite militant group Hizbollah and its allies to grab the majority in parliament. Official results for yesterday's election were not expected until later today, but the winners were already celebrating by shooting in the air, setting off fireworks and driving around in honking motorcades.

The election was an early test of the US president Barack Obama's efforts to forge Middle East peace. A win by Hizbollah would have boosted the influence of its backers Iran and Syria and risked pushing one of the region's most volatile nations into international isolation and possibly into more conflict with Israel. "I present this victory to Lebanon," the prime minister, Fuad Saniora, said on television after stations projected his pro-Western coalition was winning. "It is an exceptional day for democracy in Lebanon."

OTV, the television station of one of Hizbollah's key Christian allies, former army chief Michel Aoun, conceded that the party's candidates who challenged pro-Western competitors in several Christian districts had been defeated, preventing a victory for the Hizbollah coalition. But Mr Aoun was able to hang on to his representation in other districts. Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, a leading private Christian TV station, projected the pro-Western coalition to win 68 seats in the next parliament, with 57 for Hizbollah and its allies and three for independents. That would almost replicate the deadlock that existed in the outgoing parliament, in which the pro-Western bloc had 70 seats and an alliance of Hizbollah and other Shiite and Christian factions had 58.

The leader of the largest bloc in the pro-Western coalition, Saad Hariri, said earlier today in a televised speech that he extends his hand to the losing side "to work together and seriously for the sake of Lebanon." He urged supporters to celebrate without provoking opponents. But despite the conciliatory tone, Lebanon was at risk of sliding again into a political crisis over formation of the next government similar to the one that buffeted the country for most of the last four years.

Hizbollah had veto power in Mr Saniora's cabinet for the last year, which it won after provoking the worst street clashes since the 1975-1990 civil war. The pro-Western coalition had vowed not to give Hizbollah and its allies a blocking minority in the new government if they won. The battle in Christian districts was the decisive factor. Lebanese generally vote along sectarian and family loyalties, with seats for Sunnis and Shiites in the half-Christian, half-Muslim, 128-member parliament already locked up even before the voting started.

Christians in the pro-Western coalition warned that Hizbollah would bring the influence of Shiite Iran to Lebanon. The Maronite Catholic Church made a last-minute appeal, warning that Lebanon as a state and its Arab identity were threatened, a clear reference to Hizbollah and its Persian backer, Iran. Sunnis were also driven to vote for the pro-Western coalition to get back at Shiite Hizbollah gunmen for seizing the streets a year ago in Beirut from pro-government supporters.

About 3.2 million people, out of a population of 4m, were eligible to vote. The interior minister said that the turnout nationwide was about 52.3 per cent, an increase over the 2005 figure of 45.8 per cent. Mr Saniora won his first parliamentary seat in the southern port city of Sidon, defeating a pro-Hizbollah Sunni incumbent, according to TV projections. The race for the parliament is the first major event in the Middle East since Mr Obama, reached out to the Arab and Islamic worlds last week in his speech in Cairo in which he called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims."

Mr Obama challenged Muslims to confront violent extremism across the globe and urged Israel and the Palestinians along with Arab states to find common ground on which to forge peace. Hizbollah, which the US considers a terrorist organisation, has been one of the staunchest opponents of US policy in the Middle East and a sworn enemy of Israel. It fought the Jewish state in southern Lebanon in 2006 in a devastating war and has tried to smuggle weapons to the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza through Egypt.

Mr Obama's speech did not resonate in the election campaign. But warnings by the United States that it could reconsider aid depending on the election's outcome have sparked Hizbollah accusations of US interference. The US has given around US$1 billion (Dh3.6bn) to Lebanon's pro-Western government since 2006. In his Cairo speech, Mr Obama said the United States "will welcome elected, peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people."

The former president Jimmy Carter expressed hope that the United States, Iran and other countries will recognise the results "and not try to interfere in the process." Hizbollah's coalition includes the Shiite movement Amal and Aoun's Christian faction. Opposing it are the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim supporters of current majority leader Hariri, allied with several Christian and Druse factions.

Hizbollah tried to strike a moderate tone in the election campaign. The group only fielded 11 candidates and must work with its various political allies. The group's Christian allies argue that involving Hizbollah more deeply in the political process - rather than shunning it - is the only way to bridge the country's sectarian divides. Their opponents counter that the heavily armed Hizbollah would be driving Lebanon into the arms of Iran, which could use it as a front in the Islamic republic's confrontation with Israel.

In Israel, government officials were concerned about gains by Hizbollah. The Israeli vice prime minister, Silvan Shalom, said last week a victory by Hizbollah would be "very dangerous for the stability of the Middle East, and by that, the stability of the entire world." The voting was largely peaceful, with complaints of long waits at polling stations from voters, many of whom had to travel across the country to cast their ballots. Army troops in armoured personnel carriers and lorries took up positions on major highways, part of a 50,000-strong security force deployed for voting day.

The president, Michel Suleiman, cast his ballot in his hometown of Amchit on the coast north of Beirut. He set the political tone for the post-election period irrespective of who won, hoping for a national unity government, a prospect both sides have already raised. * AP