- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

BEIRUT — Former Lebanese Army commander Michel Aoun paid a shock visit to his jailed former rival Samir Geagea in what was seen as a bid to unite Lebanon’s Christian community just 10 days before landmark parliamentary elections.

But sharp divisions remain within the coalition that formed after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to force an end to 29 years of occupation by Syrian troops.

A party now led by Mr. Hariri’s son, Saad, has emerged as a favorite, taking nine of the 19 parliamentary seats in Beirut by acclamation after several challengers withdrew yesterday. But the pro-Syrian party that ruled until its resignation this spring also remains a factor.

Geagea, who was blamed for a wave of political assassinations and bombings when he led the Lebanese Forces militia during Lebanon’s long civil war, has spent most of the past 11 years in solitary confinement in an underground cell for his actions, while other former warlords were rewarded with Cabinet posts.

Supporters of the fiercely anti-Syrian warrior have staged large demonstrations demanding his release since the last of Damascus’ forces left the country.

Mr. Aoun, a former prime minister and military commander who returned from exile on May 7, had himself waged a bloody struggle with Geagea for control of Lebanon’s Christian community before he fled in 1990 after losing a confrontation with Syria.

But he showed no sign of rancor after his prison meeting yesterday, joining in calls for Geagea’s release in an apparent attempt to end tensions between his Free Patriotic Movement and other opposition groups.

“The visit lays the foundations for a new relationship within the democratic process we are witnessing today, and within the framework of letting go of the past, which is now part of history,” Mr. Aoun said at a press conference.

After the still-unsolved February assassination of the elder Mr. Hariri, a coalition led by Mr. Hariri’s Sunni Muslim allies, Walid Jumblatt’s Druze party and several Christian parties successfully forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian government and the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

But in recent weeks, the Christian groups began to split away from other opposition figures over Geagea and a Syrian-influenced election law, which they feel, underrepresents the estimated 30 percent of Lebanese who are Christian.

Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir at one point threatened to call for an election boycott, a prospect that was averted when Lebanese Forces politicians agreed to join the Jumblatt and Hariri lists in Lebanon’s Byzantine election system.

The alliance received a boost yesterday, the last day that candidates could withdraw without forfeiting the whole of their $6,700 deposits. Several candidates pulled out of the running in Beirut constituencies, leaving nine candidates from Mr. Hariri’s party unopposed.

Mr. Aoun, despite being met with thousands of supporters upon his return earlier this month, has had a harder time finding his way in the turgid Lebanese electoral system.

He immediately condemned the election law and accused key opposition figures such as Mr. Hariri and Mr. Jumblatt of representing interests that were once beholden to Syria, despite their recent leadership of the anti-Syrian coalition.

In a startling departure from the new spirit of cooperation among the opposition groups, Mr. Aoun said Mr. Jumblatt and Mr. Hariri were “no better than” the former Syrian intelligence leader for Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh.”

In an interview with local television news Tuesday night, Mr. Aoun refused to promise to join an alliance, a move that could limit his electoral chances.

“I am waiting until everyone holds their electoral alliances, and then I will see what I will do,” he told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.

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