- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

BEIRUT — He returned from 15 years in exile after fighting what he calls a successful fight for the freedom of Lebanon from Syrian occupation and was met upon his return by tens of thousands of cheering supporters.

But that was probably the high point of this campaign for former president and army chief of staff, Michel Aoun. Since his return in early May, he has suffered repeated political setbacks.

Initially, Mr. Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement were key players in the anti-Syrian revolution that swept Lebanon in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in mid-February. But upon his return from exile in France — Mr. Aoun had been forced out of Lebanon by Syrian troops in 1990 — Mr. Aoun failed to form the alliances critical to success in Lebanon’s complicated list-based election system.

Instead of being a part of the ?Steamroller Lists? of the slain former leader’s son, Saad Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the once banned Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, Mr. Aoun faces a fight against fellow Christian candidates for only a handful of seats tomorrow in the Mount Lebanon region, north and east of Beirut.

The internecine fight expected tomorrow offers about the only drama in the four-week Lebanese election, in which the anti-Syrian opposition — without Mr. Aoun — expects to take control of the Lebanese parliament.

With Mr. Jumblatt, Mr. Hariri and the Lebanese Forces candidate Strida Geagea — wife of the imprisoned Lebanese Forces militia leader Samir Geagea — representing an opposition to Syria but from the perspective of Lebanon’s long-entrenched political elite, Mr. Aoun did himself few political favors by demanding an end to corruption.

?We have lived through a period in Lebanon that was marked with arbitrary actions and overstepping of authority by all politicians … without anyone being held accountable,? he told a campaign rally Tuesday in Jbeil, also known as Byblos, a Christian stronghold.

?We cannot build a state based on corruption,? he added.

His demand for a financial audit — which apparently accuses Mr. Jumblatt and Mr. Hariri of profiteering, immediately left him with few allies.

?I did not know that the words financial audit … would lead to such agitation and rallying against me,? Mr. Aoun told supporters at a different event Sunday.

But although his popularity has not diminished, his election chances have been hurt because he must run in a Christian stronghold against other Christians, in this case followers of Mr. Geagea, whose wife points to her husband’s status as the only wartime militia leader imprisoned after the war, a call that plays well in Christian communities.

Mr. Hariri tugged on heartstrings in another rally north of Beirut, in which he called on voters to cast ballots for the opposition’s popular rally cry of the ?truth.?

?Every vote you will cast is a strike and a bullet in the hearts of the criminals who killed Rafik Hariri,? Mr. Hariri told thousands of supporters in Dinniyah. ?We can only know the truth through your votes.?

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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