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Lebanese General Takes On Syria. Though a Christian, Aoun says he's a nationalist first, defending nation's sovereignty

By Jim MuirSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 1989


`I am not a Christian leader who is going against the Syrians,'' says Gen. Michel Aoun. ``I am the Lebanese prime minister, who is defending his rights on his own territory.'' Speaking during an interview in the much-bombarded presidential palace at Baabda, east of Beirut, he continues: ``The Syrians have no rights in Lebanon. They are an occupying army, and the world has to support us.''

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His Syrian adversaries dismiss General Aoun as ``the little General.'' Some Lebanese, with a mixture of awe and anxiety, call him ``Napole-Aoun.''

The fighting that erupted March 14 between Aoun's regular Army troops and Muslim militia forces backed by Syrian troops is among the worst since Lebanon's civil war began in 1975. At least 123 people have been killed and 473 wounded in artillery duels that have ravaged Beirut during the past few weeks.

The latest strife was sparked by a naval blockade imposed by Aoun on illegal ports operated by Muslim militias, following his earlier takeover of a Christian militia-run berth in Beirut's harbor. The Muslim forces want the blockade lifted, but Aoun insists that a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon must take precedence over all other issues.

Many sources say that the general's challenge to Syria had struck a responsive chord among ordinary people on the other side of the line.

``They like Aoun because he is standing up to the Syrians,'' one west Beirut source says. ``They know he is not against the Muslims, and that he is a nationalist. Nobody likes the Syrians.''

But some sources say that Aoun's bombardment of Syrian-controlled areas has largely undermined his earlier support among their largely Muslim populations.

``He has alienated them completely,'' one Shiite says.

Through recent events, the general has emerged as the leading figure the Christian enclave of east Beirut and the mountain and coastal areas north and east of the capital. Yet Aoun deeply resents being called a ``Christian leader.''

The label is inevitably applied to him by the international press, because his authority as prime minister of a military government and commander of the Lebanese Army, is accepted only in the Christian enclave. In west Beirut and other mainly Muslim areas, the rival government, headed by Selim Hoss, a Sunni Muslim, is recognized.

Their vying governments emerged last September, when President Amin Gemayel left office and attempts to elect his successor failed. Since November, there has also been a rival Army command headed by a Sunni officer, Brig. Gen. Sami al-Khatib.

Mr. Gemayel appointed Aoun, then Army commander, as prime minister - a post traditionally held by a Sunni Muslim. Aoun insists that this makes him the only legal claimant to the job. But his background also gives him reason to reject claims that he represents only the Christians.

Alone among leaders in the Christian area in modern times, Aoun was raised in a mixed Muslim-Christian district. His family, of modest background, lost its home in the southern Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik in the early years of the civil war. The district is now dominated by Shiite Muslims and has been controlled militarily by Syria since last May.

Although his own Maronite Christian sect has traditionally dominated the Army, sectarianism has never had a place in Aoun's thinking. Even his most bitter political enemies cannot accuse him of favoring Christians during his progress through the ranks as a career artillery officer.