Pro-Syrian candidates appeared headed for defeat Sunday in Lebanon's first elections in three decades free of Syria's military presence -- a win that would break the longtime domination of the Damascus government in Lebanese political life and its parliament.

A pro-Syrian leader, Suleiman Franjieh, acknowledged a major defeat for his candidates and an anti-Syrian opposition official said the ticket's unofficial results indicated a near sweep in the contest for 28 parliamentary seats in northern Lebanon.

Franjieh, a close friend of the family of Syrian President Bashar Assad and one of his greatest defenders in Lebanon, said, "We bow to the will of the people."

Whatever the outcome, however, the Christian-Muslim solidarity that emerged after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February has been deeply marred by sectarian divisions. The divide has become more acute in the heated competition leading to the final round of voting in the north of the Mediterranean country.

Unofficial counts by major television stations put the average turnout in the north's two constituencies at about 49 percent.

Troops and police patrolled the streets as voters cast ballots. Candidates' supporters drove through cities and farming towns as polls opened, honking horns and waving posters and party flags. About 680,000 men and women were eligible to vote Sunday.

Voting across the country was staggered by region over four weekends. Official results from the final round should be known by midday Monday.

There was much at stake for the anti-Syrian opposition coalition of Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister. The opposition was trying to wrest control of parliament from allies of Syria who now dominate the legislature. The opposition had to win 21 of the 28 seats in the Sunday vote to gain a majority in the 128-member body.

Hariri's rival, Michel Aoun, thwarted the anti-Syrian bid to quickly rack up a majority in earlier rounds of voting. Aoun was previously allied with the opposition but then broke with it to link with a coalition of anti- and pro-Syrian figures. He made a strong showing in Christian areas during voting last week.

Of 100 seats decided in previous rounds of voting since May 29, the opposition holds 44. Aoun and allies hold 21 seats. Two pro-Syrian Shiite Muslim groups, Amal and Hezbollah, along with their allies, have clinched 35 seats.

In the predominantly Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli, Montasser Kaddour, 52, a government employee, said he voted for the Hariri-backed list because its candidates represented "moderation and reconciliation." He said Hariri was the only one who could save Lebanon.

In Zghorta, a major Christian town nearby, a 43-year-old housewife who identified herself only as Hiam said she was voting for "Lebanon's only honest man," referring to Hariri's opponent, former military commander and one-time exile Aoun.

The election is Lebanon's first balloting free of a Syrian troop presence. Those forces were pulled out under intense international pressure in April, ending a 29-year stay that began in the first year of Lebanon's civil war.

Traffic police in Tripoli, Lebanon, remove a car covered with electoral posters showing Saad Hariri with his father, slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and anti-Syrian allies.