Beirut, 15 Nov. (AKI) – The leader of Lebanon’s largest opposition party, General Michel Auon, was set on Monday to begin an official visit to the United States, a trip in which the former prime minister is expected to try to win Washington’s backing of his candidature in any eventual presidential election in Lebanon. "Aoun was formally invited by the American authorities, but for the moment we cannot provide any detail on the length of the visit or the meetings which the General will hold with officials in Washington," Aoun’s spokeswoman, May Aql, told Adnkronos International (AKI).

Aoun, whose Free Patriotic Movement won 21 seats in parliamentary elections in May, is seen as a possible successor to Lebanon’s besieged president, Emile Lahoud. While his term in office only expires in 2007. "What is certain is that during this trip Aoun will try to establish direct, high level contacts with American officials ahead of eventual presidential elections," says Saad Kiwan, a journalist with the Lebanese newspaper, as-Safir, told AKI. Aoun returned to Lebanon just before the May elections after spending almost 15 years in exile in Paris. He fled Lebanon in 1991 after Syrian troops defeated his forces during one of the closing battles of Lebanon’s civil war.

"Since returning home Aoun has presented himself to public opinion as a new man, one of the few politicians untainted by the corruption and compromises that followed the end of the civil war," says Kiwan, who believes that the General, boosted by his strong showing in the elections, is now "seeking American support".

Aoun, like Lahoud is a Maronite Christian, a position which makes him eligible for the position of president. Lebanon’s constitution specifies that the country’s president must be Maronite-Christian, while the postion of prime miniser and Parliamentary speaker must be held by Shiite and Sunni Muslims respectively.

Aoun was originally scheduled to visit the United States last month but the trip was cancelled after Washington indicated that no top level officials would meet him.