Lebanon's crisis: 96 political and religious factions keep pot boiling

Why is it so difficult to end the Lebanese civil strife that has been shredding the country into bits since 1975? One of the simplest, most obvious reasons is that there is a multiplicity of political, military, and religious factions that would have to be placated in any nationwide entente.

At last count, there were at least 96 groups roaming the country advocating their own particular bent. One Arabist, however, has counted 164.

The Lebanese fighting, in a nutshell, has been a battle between the Phalange, who generally live in east Beirut and northwest Lebanon, against the Muslims residing in west Beirut and the rest of Lebanon.

That appears straightforward enough until one takes into account that the Phalange have one large militia group composed of about 15,000 troops from four different political parties.

And not all Maronite Christians fight together. As a matter of fact, the Marada brigade is also Maronite Christian, but is backed by Syria and therefore is pro-Syrian and anti- Phalange.

The Syrian peace-keeping forces, numbering about 30,000, are Muslim and were sent to the Mediterranean nation to end the 1975-76 civil war. The Phalange say they cause more trouble than they stop.

The Syrians are lumped together with the 77 other factions in the west side of the capital and non-Christian-held areas.

One such faction fights mostly in a southwest suburb of Beirut. Called "Amal ," which is the Arabic word for hope, It is pro-Iranian, clashing with pro-Iraqis. It is more or less the Lebanese capital's own little bit of the Iran- Iraq war.

However, it is also anti-Palestinian because they are largely made up of Shiites who fled the southern part of the country when the Palestinians moved there. Amal tangles with pro-Iraqis -- some of whom are not exactly die-hard mercenaries but are involved for the money and because of a close relative or friend also soldiers with the group.

The Soldiers of God operate in one section of the northern port city of Tripoli. The Morabitoun are considered to be on the left side of the conflict but are not leftist at all. They are bourgeois.

The Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners is tricky group to link to a specific political cause or belief. It has claimed on one day to have attacked the American Embassy and on the next to have vented its vengeance on the Libyan Embassy.

The only conclusion to be drawn is that it is not a real group at all but a convenient name for other groups to claim as a front.

Then there is the Bloc National, which has both Christian and Muslim membership. It has close ties to the Palestinians but remains very neutral, with its leader living in exile in Paris.

The Palestinians -- whether they belong to the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or the Palestine Liberation Army -- add more fuel to the fire.

And, then there are the Kurdish, Armenian, and Iraqi parties, and the United Nations soldiers in the south as well as the split branches of the Lebanese Army.

Out of these 96 groups, at least 33 have their own militias equipped to varying degrees. This is more than a sobering thought, given the lack of a way to restrain such militias should they decide to open fire and have it out.

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