Hezbollah Wins Vote in Southern Lebanon

Hezbollah (search), the armed group considered a terrorist organization by the United States, and its allies swept voting in southern Lebanon (search) during the second round of nationwide parliamentary elections, the interior minister said Monday. Israel, which has long clashed with the group, expressed its concern.

The alliance of the pro-Syrian Islamic militant group and Shiite Amal won, by a wide margin, all 17 seats contested Sunday, Interior Minister Hassan Sabei said. In addition, the ticket had no challengers for six seats.

Hezbollah, which also is backed by Iran, hopes the landslide victory will demonstrate its strength and send a message of defiance as Washington calls for its disarmament in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Hezbollah has refused to give up its weapons and is backed by the Lebanese government, which argues that the militants are legitimately resisting Israel's alleged occupation of territory on the border. Israel occupied south Lebanon in 1982-2000.

Israel's Foreign Ministry expressed alarm about Hezbollah's strong showing in the voting.

"If Hezbollah was only a political party, we in Israel wouldn't be as concerned as we are," ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "Hezbollah is obviously not simply a political party, rather it is a heavily armed terrorist organization."

Hezbollah occasionally fires rockets across the Israeli border, but the inaccurate, unguided munitions are rarely effective, usually falling harmlessly on farm fields. Israel, however, considers the rockets a threat to its northern residents and at times responds with airstrikes.

Hezbollah increased its legislators in south Lebanon from four to five. It also won a seat in Beirut during the first round of elections, which began May 29.

"A united vote for the protection of the resistance and its weapons," the leftist As-Safir newspaper declared in its front-page headlines.

Bahiya Hariri (search), sister of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), won uncontested in Sidon, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city that is the capital of the south. She was one of three Sunnis on the Amal-Hezbollah ticket.

In the south, the Amal-Hezbollah alliance had 14 Shiite candidates, two Maronite Catholics, two Greek Catholics, one Greek Orthodox and one Druse. This conformed to the sectarian allocation of Lebanon's political system.

The parliamentary elections in Lebanon, which run on consecutive Sundays through June 19, are the first national polls to be conducted since neighboring Syria withdrew all its troops from the country in April after nearly three decades.

Hezbollah had nine seats nationwide in the outgoing 128-member legislature. It expects to pick up four seats in eastern Lebanon and one in central Lebanon when those regions vote next Sunday, which would raise its representation in the new parliament to 11 legislators. In addition, the group would have one allied legislator in the south and two in the east.

The Syrian pullout amid international pressure following the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri has left Hezbollah with its greatest political challenge as it seeks to transform its image from guerrilla group to respected political party.

The voting also followed last week's assassination of an anti-Syrian journalist and continuing calls by the opposition for the resignation of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud (search). The anti-Syrian opposition hopes the nationwide elections will end Damascus' control of the legislature.

After polls closed Sunday night, hundreds of Hezbollah supporters drove through the streets of Beirut, waving the party's yellow flag in celebration. In Beirut's predominantly Shiite southern suburbs, fireworks lit the sky.

Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah lawmaker, polled the highest Sunday, surpassing parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal. Amal also fought Israeli forces in the early years but the group later was overshadowed by Hezbollah, whose name means Party of God.

The results were so lopsided that the losers, a range of communists and independents, received little more than 10 percent of the vote.

Among them was Anwar Yassin, a communist ex-guerrilla who spent 17 years in an Israeli jail before being freed in a prisoner swap last year.