Christian Hard-Liner Splits Lebanese Opposition

Signaling the breakup of the anti-Syrian coalition, Christian leader Michel Aoun (search) split with his Muslim opposition allies Tuesday and announced he will field his own candidates in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Aoun, a hardline former army commander, said he will also run for a seat in the central Mount Lebanon district.

"We've decided to wage the election and the decision will be for the Lebanese," Aoun, who returned on May 7 from 14 years in exile, said in a news conference at his home.

The anti-Syrian opposition, which united Christians and Muslims against Syria after the February assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri (search), hopes to end Syria's control of parliament. The staggered elections begin Sunday and run through the following three Sundays.

While Aoun's split is not expected to alter the outcome of the election — which analysts expect to end in defeat for pro-Syrians — it is certain to energize competition.

Aoun said he failed to reach joint tickets in the Mount Lebanon province after arduous negotiations between representatives of Druse leader Walid Jumblatt (search) and Saad Hariri (search), son of the slain former premier.

Aoun's candidates will run against lists formed by Jumblatt and Hariri in one central district.

Tension between Aoun and Jumblatt had been building since the exile returned from Paris earlier this month.

Ghattas Khoury (search), a pro-Hariri lawmaker who negotiated with Aoun, said Tuesday that going to the ballot boxes was "the best way" to settle the matter. Khoury said there was little chance that the split would allow pro-Syrians to win the district.

On returning to Lebanon, Aoun vowed to help build a broad opposition alliance, focusing on reforming the political landscape and eliminating government corruption. But other opposition figures put together their own election deals that left him in the cold.

Aoun, who fought with army units under his command and lost a "war of liberation" against the Syrian army in Lebanon in 1989, regards himself as the "real opposition" — in contrast to politicians he has said were Syria's allies but turned on Damascus during recent changes in popular sentiment.

The elections are Lebanon's first parliamentary vote since domestic and international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from its tiny neighbor.

The balloting is being closely watched by an international community eager to see whether Syria's departure will loosen Damascus's political grip on Lebanon.