Hezbollah Expected to Win Lebanese Vote

Hundreds of mourners, including opposition leaders, lined the streets of Beirut (search) on Saturday for the funeral procession of an anti-Syrian journalist whose death has raised tensions in Lebanon ahead of parliamentary elections.

The second round of the four-stage parliamentary elections opened in the south of Lebanon on Sunday. Hezbollah (search), the Lebanese militant group Washington calls a terrorist organization, expects to win. A victory would give the group greater political influence to confront international pressure to disarm, now that its Syrian backers have withdrawn from the country.

But the death of Samir Kassir, the anti-Syrian journalist killed Thursday by a bomb in his car, reignited hostility toward Damascus (search) and prompted calls for President Emile Lahoud, Syria's greatest supporter here, to step down.

Lebanon's opposition blamed Syria for the assassination — a charge Syria strongly denied. Kassir's death has also sparked calls for an international inquiry.

Kassir, 45, was laid to rest Saturday in St. Mitr Cemetery, a few hundred yards from where he died in Beirut's Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh.

More than 2,000 people watched as his coffin was carried from the offices of his newspaper, An-Nahar, in downtown Martyrs' Square. Mourners threw rose petals on the coffin as it made its way to nearby St. George's Greek Orthodox church.

The funeral was attended by several opposition leaders including Walid Jumblatt, Amin Gemayel and Saad Hariri, son and heir of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a car bomb on Feb. 14. Opposition members asked government officials to stay away from the funeral.

Kassir's wife, Giselle Khoury, and daughters wept in front of his coffin during the funeral Mass. Khoury demanded an international investigation into the death of her husband, who held French and Lebanese citizenship.

"His pen will be the pen that we will continue to write with," said Nayla Tueini, an An-Nahar journalist and daughter of the daily's director-general. "Our mission is to follow Samir's path."

The White House said Friday it wants the United Nations to expand its inquiry into Rafik Hariri's killing to include the death of Kassir.

FBI agents already are assisting Lebanon's investigation into Kassir's assassination, Lebanese Justice Ministry officials said. Five French investigators arrived in Beirut on Saturday to assist with the inquiry.

Kassir, a Christian, was a founding member of the Democratic Left Movement, a small group that campaigned against Syrian control of Lebanon.

Syria pulled all its troops out of Lebanon in April after three decades, and Lebanon is in the midst of a parliamentary election that the opposition hopes will end Syria's control of the legislature.

While the race for parliamentary seats in most Lebanese areas is largely between the pro- and anti-Syrian camps, Sunday's election in south Lebanon is geared toward rejecting international pressure to disarm Hezbollah in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Al Manar, Hezbollah's television station, said the elections would serve as a referendum on Hezbollah's political options.

Voters in southern Lebanon are united in their support for Hezbollah — crediting it for forcing Israeli troops to withdraw from the region — and in their rejection of international attempts to disarm the group. Hezbollah, backed by both Syria and Iran, led a guerrilla war against Israel's 18-year occupation of a border zone in south Lebanon that ended in 2000.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whose Amal movement has forged an election alliance with Hezbollah, urged the groups' supporters to turn out in large numbers "to vote against Resolution 1559."

Last year's U.N. Resolution 1559 forced Syrian troops to leave Lebanon and also demands militias — a clear reference to Hezbollah — in Lebanon give up their weapons. The United States has also called for the group to abandon its weapons.

Hezbollah has refused to disarm, and Lebanese authorities have rejected U.S. and U.N. demands to dismantle the group, saying it is a resistance movement, not a militia.

Hezbollah, which is fielding 14 candidates across Lebanon, hopes to build on the nine seats it already holds in the 128-member legislature. Twenty-three seats are up for grabs in southern Lebanon's two electoral districts.