Hizballah and its political allies made significant gains in Lebanon's parliamentary elections, official results showed, boosting the Iranian-backed movement and illustrating Tehran's growing regional clout.
The leader of Shi'ite Hizballah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called the result late on May 7 "a very big political, parliamentary, and moral victory for the choice of resistance."
The number of Hizballah members of parliament was the same or little changed in the election, but candidates supported by the group or allied with it gained in major cities.
Hizballah and its political allies won just over half -- or at least 65 of the 128 seats in parliament -- according to final results from all but one of Lebanon's 15 electoral districts. Hizballah's press office claimed they won 71 seats in all.
Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, by contrast, lost over one-third of his seats, the results showed. He blamed a complex new voting law for the losses.
But with 21 members of parliament, down from 33 in the last parliament, Hariri still emerged as the Sunni Muslim leader with the biggest bloc in the house, making him the frontrunner to form the next government.
Lebanon's prime minister must be a Sunni under its sectarian power-sharing system. The new government, like the outgoing one, is expected to include all the main parties. Talks over cabinet posts are expected to take time.
While Hizballah made big gains in the election, the staunchly anti-Hizballah Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, also emerged as a big winner, nearly doubling its lawmakers to around 15, according to initial indications.
Branded as a terrorist group by the United States, Hizballah -- which by some estimates stockpiles more weapons than the Lebanese Army -- has grown in strength since joining the war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in 2012.
The parliamentary bloc controlled by the Iran-backed group and its allies now appears large enough to thwart any attempt by Hariri and other political opponents to force Hizballah to disarm.
An Israeli minister said on May 7 that the outcome shows the Lebanese state is now indistinguishable from Hizballah, which like Iran has been an implacable foe of the Jewish state.
Among the biggest gains for the group, Hizballah-backed Sunnis won seats in Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon, which have been strongholds of Hariri's Future Movement.
Clashes between Hariri and Hizballah supporters broke out in those cities late on May 7 after the vote, prompting the army to send in troops. The army deployed after Hariri called for action to prevent "chaos in the streets."
Iranian media appeared to gloat at Hariri's setback. The hard-line Tasnim news agency ran a report headlined: "Lebanese election result puts an end to Hariri’s monopoly among Sunnis."
The Lebanese vote will be followed on May 12 by an Iraqi election that also looks set to illustrate Iran's growing reach in the region, with one of three pro-Tehran Shi'ite leaders set to become prime minister.
An anti-Hizballah coalition led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia won a majority in parliament in 2009. But their so-called "March 14" alliance disintegrated and Riyadh has switched its attention to confronting Iran in other parts of the region, notably Yemen.
The strong showing by parties and politicians who support Hizballah's possession of weapons risks complicating Western policy in Lebanon, which receives U.S. military support and is banking on foreign aid and loans to revive its stagnant economy.
Lebanon has been a big recipient of foreign aid to help the small nation of 4.5 million cope with hosting 1 million refugees fleeing the war in neighboring Syria.
Hariri downplayed the significance of Hizballah's gains and his losses in the election, and urged the quick formation of a government so it can press ahead with reforms needed to reduce state-debt levels, which are among the highest in the world.
"It's not the end of the world," he said, and the international community should look at the election result "in a very positive way," as an affirmation of democracy in Lebanon.
Donors have said they want to see reforms carried out before they release some of the $11 billion of aid and soft loans pledged in April.
Nasrallah also called for the quick formation of a new government and said it should be done in a spirit of cooperation, putting aside differences.