On Thursday Jumblatt called on Syria - which has 14,000 troops in its tiny neighbour - to leave, a central demand of the disparate opposition movement which is gaining momentum ahead of the vote.

"That's the basic issue, to dismantle Syrian and Lebanese security intelligence, which is controlling all aspects of public life," the Druze chief and former militia leader said.

"We have to try to block it, to try to have fair elections, but in a police state it's not so easy."

Jumblatt wields considerable influence in Lebanon and among
the large Druze community, a secretive sect that emerged about 1000 years ago as an offshoot of Islam.

He said the power of the international and Lebanese press, unusually vibrant for the Arab world, and removing "Soviet, draconian laws" would be the main ways to thwart Syria's grip.

Hotly contested

The election is likely to be the most hotly contested since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, with Syria a central issue.

Many Lebanese say Jumblatt has changed tack by supporting a US-backed United Nations resolution calling for Syrian troops to leave and Hizb Allah guerrillas to disarm.

The current Lebanese cabinet is a
firm backer of Syrian presence

He said he had no objection where resolution 1559 aimed to deliver an independent Lebanon, but that the withdrawal should be gradual, in line with the Taif agreement that ended the war.

"We would like the Syrians to get out, but we don't want to  humiliate the Syrians and we will be staying, as Lebanese and Syrians, good neighbours," he said.

In Damascus, a senior UN envoy said he had held highly encouraging talks on Thursday with the Syrian president about a UN resolution calling on Syrian troops to leave Lebanon.

Jumblatt said the Hizb Allah fighters, whom Washington calls terrorists, did a good job in driving out Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation.

Broader legitimacy

Dialogue was now needed to transform the group into a purely political party, Jumblatt said.

He added that Hizb Allah should disarm, "but only after we've liberated the Shebaa Farms" - an Israeli-occupied border area.

Druze MP Marwan Hamadah (R)
escaped a bid on life in October

An erstwhile ally of Syria, Jumblatt's status has grown since he lent his weight to opponents of Syria's occupation, who were until a few months ago mainly Christian Maronite.

With the less outspoken Sunni former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri also on board, their calls have gained broader legitimacy in the country of about 18 religious groups.

But Syria's supporters, including the Lebanese government, have fought back.

Lebanon's Baath Party filed a lawsuit this week against Jumblatt after he accused the party, which has ruled Syria for decades, of assassinating his father Kamal Jumblatt during the Lebanese war.

Courage to defy

Jumblatt said he intended to fight the lawsuit. He said a car bomb intended to kill one of his allies, Druze MP Marwan Hamadah, last October had encouraged him to speak out.

"This crime committed against Marwan and the killing of his bodyguard will encourage me more to say 'yes' to a free Lebanon and 'no' to a satellite Lebanon," Jumblatt said.

"It took me some time to have the courage to defy them. Now I'm free."