Lebanon's Divided Christian Camp

Tuesday, 30 Oct 2007 08:58 AM

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A defiant Gen. Michel Aoun defended his alliance with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and vowed to press his claims for the presidency in an exclusive interview with Newsmax, despite widespread opposition from other Christian leaders and the United States.

During the interview at his heavily-guarded home in Rabiyeh, a suburb of embassies and estates in the hills just north of Beirut, Aoun rejected claims by his opponents that he was “in league” with Syria, whose forces he once vowed to expel from Lebanon while serving as interim prime minister of Lebanon nearly two decades ago.

“I am still the same,” he said, recalling earlier conversations with this reporter, when he had called for Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. “I am not in league with Syria.”

To his supporters, the 71-year Aoun is a Gen. De Gaulle figure who has rallied his nation’s resistance to the long-time Syrian occupation. It is a reference he has nurtured throughout the long years of his exile in France.

To his detractors, he is a megalomaniac, who will do anything just to achieve his nation’s highest office.

“We are fighting Mussolini and Hitler,” said Roger Eddé, a prominent Lebanese Christian businessman who had been a supporter of Aoun’s until the general’s alliance with Hezbollah last year. Edde compared Aoun to Mussolini, and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrollah to Hitler.

Aoun signed the controversial pact with Hezbollah in February 2006, five months before Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers inside Israel, igniting last summer’s war.

“It is not an alliance,” the general insisted. “It’s a memorandum of understanding.”

Aoun argued that the agreement brought Hezbollah into the mainstream of Lebanese politics, rather than taking him to the fringes.

“Before this agreement, all Hezbollah could talk about was liberating Jerusalem, liberating Israel. Now they hardly ever mention Israel, so this is a real change,” he said.

The general noted that when he returned in Lebanon in May 2005 after 14 years in exile in France, Hezbollah was already a political force on the ground.

“Hezbollah was what it was,” he said. “I didn’t create them. There was an entente among Lebanese to support them.”

But Aoun’s political opponents aren’t buying it, and question the general’s motives in attempting to mainstream a group the United States and many Lebanese view as a major international terrorist organization.

“General Aoun has no strategic goal other than to make himself president,” Lebanese forces leader Dr. Samir Geagea told Newsmax in a separate interview last week at his fortress-like redoubt high in the Christian mountains north of Beirut.

“There is no political problem with Aoun, only a psychological problem. He looks at things differently than the rest of us,” Geagea added. “He has no long-term rational calculations. Only ambition.”

Aoun caught his enemies off guard by meeting with arch-rival Amin Gemayel on Oct. 21 in an effort to defuse the tensions that have driven many Christians to despair.

Few observers here believe the rival Christian camps will take up arms against each other, as they did in 1989 when Geagea and Aoun waged a fratricidal war that devastated the Christian community and ended with Syrian troops encircling the presidential palace, where Aoun had holed up with his supporters.

Instead, they fear that Aoun and his allies will block the elections of an anti-Syrian president and thus allow Syria to consolidate its gradual return as Lebanon’s overlord.

Aoun claims that his “understanding” with Hezbollah explicitly bars a Syrian return.

“Our accord calls for official Syrian-Lebanese relations,” Aoun told Newsmax, “not a return to Syrian tutelage.”

Aoun claims to have widespread popular support, and won one-third of the popular vote in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

Private polls taken for Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister Rafic Hariri, show Aoun and Geagea polling evenly at between 12 percent to 15 percent each, sources knowledgeable of the polls told Newsmax.

“If General Aoun would put aside his personal ambitions, he would play a positive role in Lebanese politics,” one Western stated.

Lebanon’s respected French language daily, L’Orient Le Jour, suggested in a recent editorial that Lebanese leaders were prepared to allow Aoun to play a “king maker” role in the upcoming presidential elections, on condition that he withdraw his own candidacy.

Aoun’s campaign posters are plastered all over the Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods of South Beirut but are scarcely visible in the Christian north.

The 87-year old Maronite Catholic patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, has been playing a prominent role in the back-room negotiations to find a compromise presidential candidate.

The patriarch told a visiting U.S. fact-finding mission led by former South Carolina Gov. David Beasely that he was hoping for stepped-up U.S. efforts to bring the opposing parties together.

U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman has been meeting regularly with potential presidential candidates and with leaders of the Cedars Revolution, the broad-based anti-Syrian coalition that sprung up in the wake of the assassination of Hariri in Feb. 2005.

The patriarch also has been meeting with presidential hopefuls, including Aoun, in an attempt to reconcile the pro- and anti-Syrian camps, but said he could assert no religious authority over the rebel Christian chief.

“We hope to find a solution,” a source close to the patriarch told the visiting Americans last week. “But at the moment, it is very cloudy.”

After meeting with the patriarch and his top aides, Father Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International told Newsmax that these elections come at a crucial time for the Christian community in Lebanon.

“The patriarch needs to hear that Christians in America care and are concerned about the survival of the Christian community in Lebanon and the Middle East,” he said.

“If the Patriarch loses hope, the whole thing begins a downward spiral,” Roderick added.

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