- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

BEIRUT — Saad Hariri’s face beams out from almost every facade, always alongside a portrait of his late father, Lebanon’s former prime minister blessing his son’s political career from beyond the grave.

After three decades of civil war and Syrian occupation, Lebanon’s 3 million voters embark today on free parliamentary elections that will almost certainly be won by the youthful Mr. Hariri, a sharp-suited, scuba-diving, motorcycle-riding political novice.

“People love Saad Hariri,” says Ghinwa Jalloul, a parliamentary candidate who has been close to the Hariri family for 15 years. “His father was father to the nation.”

Until a few months ago, the younger Mr. Hariri, 35, was running a family business in Saudi Arabia and sporting a ponytail. Then his billionaire father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated by a bomb in central Beirut.

Saad Hariri heads a bloc contesting the capital’s 19 seats in the first round of the voting, spread regionally over four weekends.

Nine of his candidates have already clinched their seats for lack of challengers in Beirut, where there has been little campaigning and no electoral suspense.

Mr. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim like other members of his bloc, warned supporters yesterday not to be complacent.

“There are those who bet that voter turnout will be low … and that the battle is determined and there is no need to go to the ballot boxes,” he said.

“We have all to prove our loyalty to martyr Rafik Hariri and vote heavily to stop any opposing candidate from winning,” he said, according to a Reuters news agency dispatch from Beirut.

The assassination in February, which was widely blamed on Syria, sparked the so-called “Cedar Revolution,” which culminated in Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon and today’s elections.

Mr. Hariri is rapidly emerging as an influential player in the Middle East. Yesterday, he traveled to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for a one-day visit with the country’s ailing ruler, King Fahd.

In Lebanon, he looks set to lead an anti-Syrian alliance to power.

The election also is likely to cement the influence wielded by the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, an armed militia based in the south near the Israeli border.

Hezbollah, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, is viewed by many as the most influential bloc.

Hezbollah has made sure that it straddles political divisions the length of Lebanon. In the south, it has formed partnerships with Nabih Berri, the parliament’s powerful pro-Syrian speaker. In Beirut, it has joined Saad Hariri’s anti-Syrian alliance.

In a show of power last week, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, headed a rally attended by tens of thousands of supporters and boasted that the group had 12,000 missiles aimed at Israel.

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