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Lebanese elections could shift balance of power

BEIRUT - Lebanese army forces fanned out before dusk Saturday in key Beirut political battlegrounds as the nation made last-minute preparations for parliamentary elections that could shift the balance of power away from pro-American parties and towards Hezbollah leaders backed by Iran.

Dozens of Lebanese soldiers took up positions in front of Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken in the mainly Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh, one of a few dozen closely contested races that will decide the outcome of Sunday's election.

It is here that Christian politicians aligned with Hezbollah hope to pull off an upset by toppling Christian rivals who side with the U.S.-backed, Sunni-led Future Movement that now controls Lebanon's 128-seat parliament.

Standing under a portrait of Christian leader Michel Aoun in a campaign headquarters decorated with the Free Patriotic Movement's orange flags, political strategist Michel Matni sounded optimistic.

"We hope that the orange 'tsunami' will carry votes from Ashrafieh" across Lebanon, Matni said as campaign aides handed out orange juice to supporters sitting on orange sofas.

If Matni is right, Aoun, a former general and acting president who'd been forced into exile when Syria dominated Lebanese politics, could emerge from Sunday's election as the pivotal figure in the next government.

From Jerusalem to Washington, leading politicians have warned that Lebanon could face renewed political isolation if Hezbollah triumphs.

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden obliquely warned that the United States might cut its financial support for Lebanon's military - more than $400 million over the last four years -- if Hezbollah and its allies dominate the next government.

Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, went further in threatening Hezbollah, which sparked a devastating 2006 war with Israel by capturing two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Israel avoided striking major government buildings in that war on the grounds that Hezbollah did not control the government. Should that change, Barak warned late last month, Israel would consider the Lebanese government a legitimate target.

Currently, Hezbollah holds 14 seats in Lebanon's parliament, and the party led by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is not trying to elect more members.

Instead, Aoun's candidates could propel the Christian-Hezbollah alliance into power.

If the United States and its Middle East allies were to follow through on threats to cut off funding for Lebanon, some analysts fear that it could create an opening for Iran to play an even more dominant role in regional politics.

"I fear that Hezbollah could take the state much closer to Iran," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Center in Beirut.

Pro-American parties are doing all they can to avert that outcome.

Members of the Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri, the son of slain Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, are flying in thousands of supporters so they can vote in Sunday's election.

As many as 19,000 Lebanese expatriates have been flown in to vote, according to local news reports. And there is fierce competition for voters in closely contested districts, where vote-selling is routine.

"I got a lot of offers," said Tony Awes, a 50-year-old businessman who set up a campaign flag stand in the heart of Ashrafieh. "Sometimes its $500, sometimes its $750 per vote."

While vote buying is illegal, it is difficult to root out.

"In really hotly contested districts where the outcome might come down to a couple of dozen votes, some people will wait to vote later in the afternoon when one side is desperate to tilt the balance, and the price goes up," said Les Campbell, who is heading up a team of election observers for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which has U.S. government backing.

Because neither coalition is certain to emerge with a commanding majority, some political analysts think the only route to stability is a unity government.

For now, both sides are refusing to talk of compromise.

"The region is still at a crossroads between making long-awaited progress toward negotiation and accommodation or falling back into confrontation and war," Salem wrote in a recent op-ed for The Daily Star in Beirut. "A coalition government should be an occasion to consolidate this stability rather than entering into a new phase of risk and confrontation."

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