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Shiite-Christian alliance shakes Lebanon politics

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AP Photo BEI507, BEI501, BEI502, BEI504, BEI503, BEI506

By HAMZA HENDAWI and SAM F. GHATTAS

Associated Press Writers

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BEIRUT (AP) — It’s an unusual alliance in a country where your religion usually determines your politics: Christians siding with Shiite Muslim militant Hezbollah. But it has shaken up Lebanon’s politics, and backers say it represents the future of this long divided nation.

The coalition is also strong enough it could bring the anti-Israel and anti-U.S. Hezbollah to power in next week’s parliamentary elections. That possibility has turned this election into a fierce battle for Lebanon’s Christians.

Sunday’s vote pits factions backed by the United States and the West against a coalition led by the pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its ally, Christian leader Michel Aoun. Sunni Muslims overwhelmingly support the former, Shiites the latter — and Christians are divided between them.

That makes Christians the swing vote, so campaigning has been heavy. Pro-Western factions are playing on Christians’ fears of Shiite domination, warning that Hezbollah could spread Iranian-style Islamic conservatism in the Mideast’s most liberal country and draw Lebanon into another war with Israel, as many here feel it did in 2006.

"It’s your choice between peace and war," Sami Gemayel, a Christian Phalange Party candidate, said in a recent TV appearance.

"The choice is between Gaza and a developed, civilized Lebanese state," he said, comparing a Hezbollah-led Lebanon to the isolated, war-torn Gaza Strip, ruled by Hezbollah’s ally Hamas.

Christian critics have blasted Aoun as an opportunist, selling out his community for power.

Indeed, Lebanon’s Shiites and Christians make an odd fit.

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The Christians have historically looked to the West in politics, culture and even fashion — while Shiite Hezbollah and its supporters take their cues from Iran. Hezbollah is famed for its fight against Israel and support for the Palestinians, while Christians have been less interested in the Palestinians’ cause, or even outright hostile to them, since they were on opposite sides of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

Moreover, Hezbollah is a close ally of Syria, while Aoun — a former general and army commander — battled Syria in 1989 in a failed uprising against its control of Lebanon.

But three years after its formation, the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance has not only survived but is going strong. Also backed by Lebanon’s ethnic Armenian Christians, it has a strong chance of winning a majority in the 128-seat parliament next week. That would enable it to form a new government, removing the current one dominated by pro-Western factions.

The one thing that might prevent the coalition’s victory is a number of Christian candidates billing themselves as independents, aligned with neither Hezbollah nor the pro-Western camp. They may be able to draw enough votes to keep some Christian seats out of Aoun’s hands.

The durability of the Aoun-Hezbollah coalition has stunned many who had thought it a cynical Aoun move that would quickly fall apart.

"This is more than a tactical alliance," said Bilal Saab, a Lebanon expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But what it is exactly we still don’t know."

Backers depict the alliance as a blow to politics-as-usual, saying it points to a more democratic, less sectarian political future.

Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, politics here have been solidly sectarian, feudal and clannish: Chiefs of powerful families in each sect lead the main political parties, and their followers almost invariably vote for them.

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Aoun and Hezbollah say they are breaking those traditional lines of power. They campaign on promises of reform, playing on widespread frustration with political bickering.

In a campaign speech Friday, Aoun said the alliance "saved the nation from a lot of bad possibilities" and points the way to greater harmony among Lebanon’s sects.

"I’ve never felt a day that I am a cover for the ’Persian invasion,"’ he said, dismissing warnings of Iranian domination through Hezbollah.

But rather than breaking sectarianism, the alliance may represent a cold-eyed assessment of Lebanon’s new sectarian demographics.

Christians were once a majority in Lebanon, giving them a sense of power in the country. But Christian emigration and higher Muslim birthrates have changed the balance: Christians, Shiites and Sunnis are believed to make up roughly a third each of the estimated 4 million population. Shiites are thought to be the largest single sect, and Hezbollah is undoubtedly the most organized and well-armed faction in the country.

So hitching their star to Hezbollah may make sense to many Christians. Hezbollah’s military strength and Shiites’ sheer numbers give protection to Christian allies, who preserve a say in power.

Hezbollah, in turn, gains a foothold outside the Shiite community, allowing it to project an image of being a national movement.

"The alliance plucked Hezbollah out of political marginalization," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Hezbollah expert. "Without it, it would have still be Shiites versus the rest of the country."

Hezbollah has sought to assure Christians it won’t try to dominate the country.

"We will be at the service of our allies in the next government," Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in one of his many television appearances ahead of the election. "No one can govern on his own."

Holding power could exacerbate potential tensions. Many Christians want Hezbollah’s guerrillas disarmed, a demand the group has opposed.

Hezbollah also wants reforms that would eventually reduce Christians’ power. Lebanon’s sectarian system dedicates half parliament’s seats to Christians, while the rest are divvied among Shiites, Sunnis and others. Hezbollah wants to get rid of that system since it no longer reflects the demographics.

Hoping to woo Christians, the main pro-Western Sunni-dominated parties are promising to preserve Christians’ 50 percent proportion.

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