`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.''
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.
Now it is estimated that about 30 percent of his loyalist officers and men are Muslims, mainly Sunnis from rural areas. Lebanese and foreign sources say he also retains great respect and admiration even among the Muslim and Druze Army units which split off during the years of sectarian strain and which now operate in Syrian-controlled areas.
Aoun's nationalism was tested when Israeli troops advanced on the presidential palace during their 1982 invasion. Aoun, then a colonel, prepared to open fire. He had to be ordered by President Elias Sarkis to stand down.
``He was the only Christian officer who saw the Israelis as an invading enemy which should be confronted,'' a Christian source says. ``Among his 500-600 loyalist officers, he is seen as some kind of god.''
Three months later Aoun was in charge of Lebanese Army units in west Beirut. The Israelis had moved into the city in the wake of the withdrawal of Palestine Liberation Organization forces. The Israelis asked Aoun to send his men into the undefended Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. He refused. The Israelis turned instead to their Christian militia allies, the Lebanese Forces, who massacred hundreds of Palestinians.
``His professional and moral integrity is his strength,'' one Western military observer says. ``He is very much admired and well liked. Few in the Army would suggest he has personal ambitions - his motives are patriotic rather than personal. It is well known that he does not have his fingers in the till. He is a simple, honest man.''
Even his strongest admirers concede, however, that Aoun has an impetuous nature. They say that he is liable to become unpredictable, even irrational, especially when cornered.
``He tends to have a sudden rush of blood to the head,'' a senior diplomat says. ``I'm convinced that more than anything else, he needs to be protected from himself. He has certainly introduced a new, exciting element of unpredictability into an already complicated situation.''
The general's impetuosity has also been evident in impromptu press statements which he has subsequently had to tone down - notably a much-publicized comment that it did not matter if Beirut were destroyed for a ninth time, for it could be rebuilt.
If Aoun's defiant confrontation with the Syrians, hot on the heels of his battle with the Christian militia, has puzzled the diplomats. It has also shaken the Christian political establishment.
``Aoun made it to the top without any establishment patronage, and the establishment doesn't like him,'' one Western observer says.
Aoun, for his part, has scant patience with traditional politicians. Their compromises have, in his view, allowed Syria to entrench its presence in Lebanon.
His Christian political critics accuse him of plunging rashly into battle with the Syrians without consulting other Christian leaders, and without having any master plan up his sleeve. ``He doesn't listen to anybody,'' one says. ``At the political level, nobody in the Christian area is fully supporting him.''
But all observers agree that the general's military and verbal confrontation with the Syrians has made him immensely popular among ordinary Christians. They do not share the misgivings of what diplomats call the ``cerebral classes.''
``Everybody who loves freedom is behind the general,'' a Christian cab driver says. ``Even if it means suffering and [even if it] might not work, we have to try this way.''