BEIRUT (Reuters) – Voters go to the polls in south Lebanon on Sunday in the second phase of parliamentary elections with the country rattled by the assassination of a prominent anti-Syrian journalist. A slate led by Syria’s allies Hizbollah and Amal groups looks assured of victory in the Shi’ite Muslim heartland bordering Israel but the killing of columnist Samir Kassir on Thursday has again raised the stakes at the polls.The disparate anti-Syrian opposition put some of its differences aside to join voices in blaming Syria and its security allies for the killing and called for the resignation of President Emile Lahoud, a close ally of Damascus.Several opposition figures said his resignation would be the new parliament’s main task after the May 29-June 19 elections. The opposition called on Friday for a gathering at a crossroads leading to Lahoud’s presidential palace on Monday “to declare the responsibility of the chief of the Lebanese-Syrian security regime for the series of assassinations.”

Lahoud and Syria have denied any role in Kassir’s death.

Opposition factions are set to win a majority in the 128-member assembly, buoyed by stunning political victories and public sympathy since the February assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Large protests by Christians, Sunnis and Druze in Beirut forced Syria to submit to international pressure and end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April. Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government and security chiefs were also toppled.

But electoral horse-trading and political bickering in recent weeks shattered the unity of the opposition with factions clashing with each other and allying themselves with different pro-Syrian groups to the dismay of many Lebanese.


The opposition called for a general strike on Friday to mourn Kassir but the call was largely ignored. Scores of journalists and politicians, holding up pens, held a silent hour-long sit-in at central Beirut’s main square.

A security source said the United State’s was helping into the probe into Kassir’s death. A five-member FBI team visited his bombed site and collected evidence.

A French team was also set to help, the source said. Kassir also held French nationality.

The Amal-Hizbollah “steamroller” is set to sweep south Lebanon’s 23 seats in the second stage of elections that began in mainly Sunni Beirut last Sunday with a landslide win for Hariri’s son that secured 18 seats for the opposition.

Six candidates on the slate have already won their seats as they are running uncontested.


Both groups were backed by Damascus during andThe staunchly anti-Israel Hizbollah and the more moderate Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, are the dominating forces among the Shi’ites, Lebanon’s largest sect.

 since the 1975-1990 civil war and Shi’ites largely stayed away from the anti-Syrian protests.

Hizbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to fight any forcible attempt to disarm his guerrillas, who played a major role in driving Israel from south Lebanon in 2000. But some opposition leaders have urged the group to lay down its weapons.

Nasrallah warned on Friday that U.S. pressure on Lebanon could lead to a civil strife and urged the Lebanese to unite and reject Washington’s demands.

“The Americans will push the country to strife it doesn’t go along with their priorities, agenda and arrangements,” he said.

Turnout in south Lebanon where 675,000 are eligible to vote will be watched closely. Only 28 percent of voters cast ballots in the Beirut polls.