Lebanon's Christian community at odds as elections near. Rivals vie for control as group prepares to make presidential choice

The approach of presidential elections in Lebanon has aggravated tensions and rivalries among the country's Maronite Christians, which by tradition fill the presidency. The election should take place in time for the new president to be inaugurated in September. Three major forces within the Maronite community are vying for influence and control: Phalangist militia units loyal to President Amin Gemayel; the fiercely anti-Syrian militia known as the Lebanese Forces, headed by Samir Geagea; and Christian-dominated units of the fragmented Lebanese Army, whose Commander, Gen. Michel Aoun, is seen by some as a serious contender for the presidency.

Among the most notable recent signs of tension were a face-off between the Army and the Lebanese Forces in early May, an attempt to assassinate the militia's Mr. Geagea two weeks later, and a late-May car bombing incident in Christian East Beirut that claimed a score of lives.

Political observers say the strains result from both competition for leadership within the community and foreign - particularly Syrian - pressures.

Syria and its Lebanese Muslim allies have boycotted the East Beirut Christian leadership since January 1986, when President Gemayel's followers banded together with Geagea's to oust the then Lebanese Forces leader, Elie Hobeika.

Damascus had bypassed Mr. Gemayel and persuaded Mr. Hobeika to sign a Syrian-sponsored Lebanese settlement with the Shiite and Druze militia chiefs. Geagea accused Hobeika of going too far with concessions to the Muslim community, while Gemayel is widely believed to have opposed the accord largely out of personal pique at his own exclusion.

Since his ouster, Hobeika has been based in the Christian town of Zahle, in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley, plotting his return. He and his Syrian backers have frequently been blamed by the Lebanese Forces for car bomb attacks and assassination attempts in East Beirut.

The militia lost no time in charging that the Syrians and their local agents were behind a May 30th car bomb blast in East Beirut. It came only two days after Syrian troops were deployed in Beirut's southern suburbs to keep the peace between rival Muslim Shiite groups.

Syrian officials had said that the deployment should be followed by a similar move by General Aoun's Army units in East Beirut to take control away from the Lebanese Forces in time for the elections. The militia angrily rejected the idea, accusing the Syrians of sponsoring the bomb attack in order to destabilize the Christian areas and bolster their demand for an Army takeover.

But there are doubts about whether the Army could defeat the militia if it came to a showdown. The Lebanese Forces are believed to have the loyalty of a significant segment of the Army.

``I'm not sure the Army could do it,'' said a Western military observer. ``There is a question about who is loyal to whom within the Army. The militia is also extremely well organized.''

Aoun threw down a challenge to the Forces in early May when he ordered the Army to erect checkpoints around East Beirut to check vehicles. Geagea responded by mobilizing nearly 20 roadblocks, each manned by scores of his followers. After a tense stand-off, the Army backed down.

Christian sources say Gemayel did not initiate or support Aoun's move. Some well-placed Christians doubt that the president wants the Army to take over in East Beirut. They believe his main ambition is to arrange things so that he himself will emerge as the senior Christian statesman when he leaves office, whereas an Army takeover would strengthen the position of the new president.

Aoun himself is widely regarded as close to the United States, having cooperated with the US military when it helped to rebuild his Army. He is also believed to have reasonable, if discreet, links with the Syrians. But there is considerable resistance in Christian political circles to the idea of a military man taking over the presidency.

With the Christian militia even ruling out the Syrian-proposed security arrangements, mediators may be reduced to trying to agree simply on a person. ``If Syria and the US could agree on a candidate, he would stand a good chance - but the militia could still veto that, too,'' the politician added.

The president is elected by parliament, which itself has not faced general elections since 1972 because of the full-scale civil war and ongoing sectarian strife. The body has merely renewed itself, and has 23 vacant seats out of 99 total.

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