BEIRUT - Saad Hariri, the billionaire businessman and son of a slain former prime minister, is emerging as the favourite to lead Lebanon's government after his pro-Western coalition fended off a serious challenge from Iranian-backed Hezbollah in weekend elections.

Legislative allies said Tuesday that Hariri, the 39-year-old moderate leader of the largest parliamentary bloc in the winning coalition, is expected to replace his ally Fuad Saniora.

Hariri's alliance dealt a major setback to Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers in Sunday's vote, gaining 68 seats to the opposing group's 57. The other three seats in the 128-member parliament went to independents.

Fears of Iran gaining more influence in the Arab country swayed Christian swing voters away from the coalition led by the Shiite militant group and helped deliver the election victory to the U.S.-aligned camp. Analysts and voters said Tuesday that President Barack Obama's outreach to the Muslim world also helped blunt the appeal of the militants.

Hezbollah's loss removed one potential obstacle to Obama's renewed push for Mideast peace. The group fought a 2006 war against Israel and there were fears that if it gained more power, there could be another conflict.

In the wake of the vote, there were some encouraging signs that tensions between Hezbollah and the pro-Western faction might be easing, at least for now. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in calm words Monday, recognized the results and offered to co-operate with the winners.

"A chance to build a strong and fair state still exists. All agree that there are crises facing us at all levels," he said. "We are in a new stage and in a new situation."

In a victory speech Monday, Hariri called on the Lebanese to close ranks.

"We must extend hands to each other, roll up sleeves and work together for the benefit of Lebanon," he said.

His spokesman, Hani Hammoud, said Tuesday that Hariri has repeatedly declared he will not shy away from the premiership but will consult with his allies before deciding.

Hariri declined the position after the last elections in 2005, held just months after his father Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive car bombing in Beirut. His killing sparked massive street protests against Syria, which many including Saad Hariri blamed in the attack. Syria denied involvement.

The demonstrations, coupled with intense international pressure, forced Syria to pull its tens of thousands of troops out of Lebanon a few months later in what was a watershed moment in Lebanon's modern history. It ended nearly three decades of Syrian control of its smaller neighbour.

Over the past four years, Hariri faced death threats as he accused Syria of killing his father and other politicians in a mysterious campaign of bombings and assassinations in Lebanon. He has regularly travelled to world capitals to lobby for the international tribunal, set up in March in the Netherlands, to try his father's killers.

He was besieged in his Beirut residence for a few days when Hezbollah gunmen overran pro-government Sunni neighbourhoods of Beirut in street fighting in May 2008.

After the show of force, Hezbollah wrested an agreement that gave it veto power over government decisions. The deal virtually paralyzed the government over the past year but ensured a year of relative calm.

The makeup of the new parliament, almost identical to the outgoing one, means that many of the questions that have dogged the fractious nation, such as what to do with Hezbollah's arsenal, remain. And that could translate into renewed political deadlock in this sharply polarized, volatile nation.

Ahmed Fatfat, a member of Hariri's Future Movement, said he expected him to be nominated as prime minister during binding consultations between President Michel Suleiman with the new legislators after the parliament's term ends June 20.

"Saad Hariri is our choice for prime minister. The Lebanese people have expressed great confidence in him following Sunday's elections," Fatfat told The Associated Press.

Two other Hariri allies also said they expected him to be the choice for prime minister.

Under Lebanon's sectarian divisions of political power, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Catholic and the parliamentary speaker a Shiite Muslim.

Though some criticize Hariri for a lack of political experience, his supporters point to his success in business and insist he can contribute to the country's economic development.

The family's business empire, based in Saudi Arabia, includes interests in construction and telecoms. And he has close ties to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's economic powerhouse, and is a Saudi citizen as well.

Latest From ...