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Lebanon vote's result a relief to U.S., allies

But many of the questions that have dogged the fractious nation remain.

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon's Western-backed coalition dealt a major election setback to Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers yesterday, removing a potential obstacle to President Obama's Middle East peace push.

Coming just days after the president reached out to the Muslim world in a speech from Cairo, Egypt, the vote undercuts the most militant force in Lebanese politics.

It was the first major political test in the Middle East since Obama's groundbreaking address last week, in which he challenged the Islamic world to confront violent extremism and urged Israel and the Arabs to find common ground for peace.

Official results, announced yesterday, may also set the stage for renewed political deadlock in this sharply polarized, volatile Arab nation.

The results mirrored the breakdown of the departing parliament, meaning many of the questions that have dogged the fractious nation, such as what to do with Hezbollah's weapons, remain.

Still, the outcome was cause for relief for many in the West and eased the apprehension of some of America's moderate Arab allies.

"Once more, the people of Lebanon have demonstrated to the world their courage and the strength of their commitment to democracy," Obama said in a congratulatory statement that made no reference to Hezbollah.

"This is definitely a positive sign," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. "But the real proof will be . . . in the government's ability to enforce order and prevent Hezbollah from continuing military actions in southern Lebanon and throughout Lebanon."

Hezbollah, which controls a militia more powerful than Lebanon's national army, has long opposed America's Mideast policies.

A win for the Shiite group, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, would have boosted the influence of its backers Iran and Syria and risked pushing the country into international isolation and possibly more conflict with archenemy Israel.

Sunday's vote cleared the way for a visit to Lebanon and Syria by Mideast envoy George Mitchell.

A senior Obama administration official said yesterday that Mitchell would visit Beirut and Damascus after meetings with Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders expected today and tomorrow.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Mitchell's itinerary has not been made final.

Still, Obama's words did not resonate as much as a last-minute appeal from Lebanon's influential Maronite Catholic Church to Christians, the main swing vote.

Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir warned of what he called a threat to Lebanon's character and its Arab identity, a clear reference to Hezbollah and its Persian backer, Iran.

Final results gave the pro-Western coalition 68 seats to 57 for the Hezbollah-led alliance, with three seats going to independents - an allocation largely unchanged from the departing legislature.

Hezbollah retained its 11 seats and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recognized the results yesterday.

"We graciously accept the results," the cleric said in a calm voice on television, as celebratory gunfire echoed across Beirut.

Horseback Attack Repelled by Israel

Gaza extremists with explosives-laden horses approached the Israeli border early yesterday, igniting a battle that left four gunmen and at least one of the horses dead, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

The incident marked a serious flare-up on the border, which has been tense but relatively quiet since a three-week military offensive ended in January.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the

extremists might have planned to capture an Israeli soldier.

The Israeli military said

the Palestinian fighters approached the border fence between Israel and the Hamas-controlled territory with a number of trucks carrying a total of five horses. The extremists were planting bombs along the fence when they were spotted and fired on by Israeli infantrymen. The Israelis also employed tanks and helicopter gunships, the military said.

The carcass of one horse was visible at the scene, along with the charred remains of three trucks.

Gaza is enclosed by a security fence. The attack occurred near Nahal Oz,

a crossing used to ship fuel into Gaza and a target of past attacks.

- Associated Press