Suleiman Franjieh, the last of a generation of Christian warlords and the president of Lebanon when it disintegrated into civil war, died Thursday at the age of 82.
A spokesman for American University Hospital, where Franjieh died, said he had been admitted July 2 and had been in fragile health for several years.
Franjieh was among the zaims , or feudal lords, who largely controlled Lebanon after independence from France in 1943.
He was chief of a powerful Maronite Catholic clan in the mountains of northern Lebanon and was reputed to have ordered the slayings of hundreds of people over the years.
Known as “the Sphinx” because of his distaste for small talk, the chain-smoking Franjieh had a private army, the 5,000-strong Marada, or Giants.
Unlike most Maronites, who are allied with Israel, Franjieh was supported largely by Syria. In Lebanon’s civil war, he sided with right-wing Christians against Palestinian guerrillas and leftist Muslim factions.
Franjieh was elected president in August, 1970, and some think his corruption-ridden government and use of force against political opponents accelerated the country’s slide toward civil war.
Franjieh spent his early life in the shadow of his older brother, Hamid, a member of Parliament.
In the 1930s, Franjieh ran a trading business in Beirut but began making his mark as the boss in Zagharta and nearby Tripoli.
In June, 1957, Franjieh and his men were accused of slaughtering members of a rival clan, the Dwaihis, in a church near Zagharta. Franjieh fled to Syria where he met future President Hafez Assad, then a young officer.
Fifteen months later, Franjieh was pardoned and returned to Zagharta. Hamid had suffered a stroke and in 1960 Franjieh was elected to his brother’s parliamentary seat.
He was minister of agriculture, justice, interior and economy before being elected president, pledging to restore the supremacy of the political dynasties whose power had been undermined by reformist administrations.
In June, 1976, Franjieh invited Syria to send troops to support the outnumbered Christians in the civil war. But he broke from the Christian alliance in February, 1978, after it demanded a Syrian withdrawal.
The main Christian militia, the Phalange, retaliated by attacking Franjieh’s summer mansion in June, 1978, killing his eldest son, Tony, Tony’s wife and about 30 bodyguards.
Franjieh vowed to avenge them, and security sources say that more than 400 Phalangists have been killed by Franjieh’s men.
At 78, Franjieh--who left office in 1976--made another bid for the presidency when President Amin Gemayel’s term expired in 1988. But elections were postponed by a parliamentary boycott and in 1989, when they finally were held, he was too ill to run.
He was the last of the chieftains of his generation that once included Pierre Gemayel, Camille Chamoun and Kamal Jumblatt.