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Opposition Wins Majority in Lebanese Vote

The anti-Syrian opposition claimed victory Monday after unofficial results showed its candidates securing a majority in the Lebanese parliament, breaking Damascus' long political hold on its tiny neighbor.

Men, women and children waved flags and danced in the streets of the northern city of Tripoli as news of the opposition victory spread. In Beirut, the national capital, opposition supporters drove through the city, cheering and honking in celebration.

Unofficial results showed opposition candidates sweeping all seats in the final round of the four-stage elections, which was held Sunday in northern Lebanon (search). The announcement of official results by the Interior Ministry was delayed as the counting took longer than expected.

"The north has decided the character of the new parliament and given the absolute majority to the opposition," opposition leader Saad Hariri (search) said at a news conference.

Hariri did not give a number for the seats he believes his alliance has won. But earlier Monday, a pro-Syrian leader, former Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh, also said the opposition had triumphed in Sunday's polling.

Asked whether he would seek the premiership, the 35-year-old son Hariri said he would consult his allies. The Feb. 14 slaying of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), galvanized the movement to oust Syrian troops from the country.

Saad Hariri needed to win at least 21 of the 28 seats at stake in the north Lebanon balloting after Christian leader Michel Aoun (search) and his allies made a strong showing in a previous round in central Lebanon last week, denying the opposition a majority.

The new 128-member parliament will face the challenge of healing the divisions and new sectarian tensions that resulted from the campaign.

Hariri said he will negotiate with other parliamentary blocs to broaden his alliance.

"We have to maintain dialogue with everybody. We will not close the door on anyone," Hariri said, extending a hand to his defeated opponents.

Aoun, who returned from 14 years' exile in May but broke with the anti-Syrian alliance to form his own list, said he would sit in opposition. "There's a dispute over values," he said of his rivals.

The election was marred by allegation of vote-buying and other shortcomings. The head of the European Union observers, Jose Ignacio Salafranca, said his team of about 100 personnel had "directly witnessed a few attempts at vote-buying" in the three previous rounds of voting. He also said the electoral system needs "a very serious reform to be closer to the democratic standards."

Russia, meanwhile, called on the new government to work for unity after the divisions and renewed sectarian tensions of recent months.

A key task for the new authorities was to "produce a national consensus on the most important political and economic problems," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said in statement, adding that the government should also develop "good neighborly and equal" relations with Syria.

The latest developments capped months of political upheaval. Mass anti-Syrian protests sparked by Hariri's murder forced the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon in April after a 29 year presence but Damascus had maintained influence in the legislature.

The opposition has blamed Syria and Lebanese security elements loyal to Damascus for blowing up Hariri's motorcade, killing him and 20 others on a Beirut street. Syria has denied involvement.

"What happened is a hurricane that aims at destroying Lebanese unity, and this is the danger facing us all and we must avoid," said Mikhail Daher, a former opposition legislator who was defeated.

Daher, a Christian, blamed his loss in the mainly Muslim Akkar region on vote-buying and incitement of sectarian tensions by the Future Movement of Hariri, a Sunni Muslim.

And, while the victory shakes off Syria's long hold on the country, the opposition still has to deal with President Emile Lahoud (search), a staunch pro-Syrian who has rejected calls to step down.

The parliament also must elect a new speaker, nominate a new prime minister and approve a Cabinet that must tackle a high debt, deal with a U.N. investigation into the Hariri assassination and a divisive U.N. demand for disarming militias — a reference to the anti-Israeli Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government was to move into a caretaker capacity late Monday when the outgoing parliament's mandate ends.

The anti-Syrian faction also will have to work with other blocs in parliament. Out of 100 seats decided in previous rounds of voting since May 29, Aoun and his allies who ran on an anti-corruption ticket had 21 seats. The pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim groups Amal and Hezbollah (search), along with their allies, had clinched 35 seats.

One apparent victim of the elections was the Christian-Muslim solidarity that emerged after Hariri's assassination. The final round of the balloting was marred by sectarian divisions as both sides sought to rally their supporters in the battle for seats.

The election was bitterly fought, with rival candidates accusing each other of vote-buying and incitement. Hariri's opponents accused him of trying to appeal to the north's slight Sunni majority against his top rival, the Christian Aoun, and of stirring up religious differences with tactics such as having clerics in mosques urge voters to back his ticket.