Lebanon's Shiites prefer politics to civil war . . . for now

If Lebanese government attempts to reconcile feuding factions are to get off the ground, they will soon have to focus on the crowded Shiite Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut.

In the sprawling zone of poor- to middle-class apartment blocks - home to Lebanon's largest and most underprivileged religious community - Lebanese Army troops have been skirmishing for the past week with militiamen of the Shiite Amal (Hope) movement. The battles have threatened nearby US Marine positions.

So far, Amal leader Nabih Berri insists he does not want the kind of all-out conflict with the Army that Walid Jumblatt's smaller Druze forces fought in the mountains. Some Shiite intellectuals believe Mr. Berri's moderation, attested to by Western diplomats and by his opponents, may have cost him power in a violent land.

A reasonable man has very little maneuvering ground here, says one Shiite lawyer. If Berri was extremist the government would have to listen.

But the festering grievances of the Shiites, who have grown increasingly resentful of their back-seat role in centers of economic and political power, are potent reminders both to Lebanese and US officials that the Shiites could explode if current efforts at Lebanese reconciliation fail.

''There will be no security in Lebanon without our rights,'' insists Berri.

Amal leaders claim the current fighting was provoked by Christian shelling from areas adjacent to the suburbs. They say the shelling was not checked by the Lebanese Army. Government sources charge that provocateurs from the suburbs attacked the Army. But US military sources confirm Christian militia provocations.

They say that sympathetic Christian Army commanders let hostile Christian Lebanese Forces militiamen and snipers near their positions at the edge of Shiite suburbs and that the Christians then murder Shiite civilians. When Shiites return fire, the Christians melt away and the Lebanese Army shells Shiite residential areas. The Shiites then fire on or kidnap Lebanese Army patrols that they hold responsible (letting them go after negotiations) and the cycle of Lebanese provocations and violence continues.

''We have no intention to make a new war,''says Berri, ''but if the Lebanese Army enters the suburbs, they will cause an uprising in all Lebanon.''

The suburbs, long swollen with Shiite refugees from Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, are now relatively uncrowded as families flee the fighting. The streets are filled with youthful Amal militiamen checking cars and strangers on streets pockmarked with shells. Many apartment houses have huge holes revealing the furniture inside, like life-size open doll houses.

Teen-agers carry rifles, machine guns, knives, and occasionally pistols. They often wear photos of Amal's founder, Shiite religious leader Imam Musa Sadr, who disappeared mysteriously in Libya in 1978. Imam Sadr's photo is plastered on almost every house.

The suburbs have become such a political symbol that they are referred to simply as dahya, the Arabic word for suburbs, without mention of any of their names. Says one Beirut banker, ''The rich want to see these suburbs evacuated because they see in them the threat of civil war.''

Amal fighters and intellectuals at headquarters scattered throughout the dahya are quick to enumerate their grievances. Shiites have only 17 parliamentary seats although they are an estimated 40 percent of the population, complained businessman Fadi Taher in one Amal office. In an atmosphere like a community center, he also charged that ''every Maronite (Christian) has a school but half our kids are in the streets. In the dahya there is not even one government hospital.''

Even those Shiites who are in parliament do not fully represent the Shiites, some complain. The parliamentarians were elected 11 years ago before Amal was founded and represent old landed Shiite families rather than the new middle class and intelligentsia. New elections have been repeatedly postponed because of eight years of civil war.

Shiites also resent the fact that they hold no key Army or intelligence post - nor do they head any of the key government economic institutions.

Despite its grievances, Amal for a long time avoided linking up with Lebanese leftist groups and Palestinian organizations that battled Christian militias through the 1970s. While individual Shiite leftists often played important roles in these groups, Amal, formed as a social movement by Imam Sadr, battled at various times the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Israelis, local communists, and Islamic rebels who tried to impose control on its areas.

Hussein Musawi, a one-time Amal leader, was expelled from the Amal organization because he tried to subject it to Iranian politics. This happened though Shiites revere Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini as the ''Pope'' of the Shiite sect.

US diplomats consider Berri a moderate and US military sources feel that the newly American-trained Army should soon add more Shiite officers. Berri, whose ex-wife and six children live in Dearborn, Mich., is reserving judgment on the American presence in Lebanon pending future positions on power-sharing here. But with the current American emphasis on a more equitable deal for Lebanese Muslims , he could become crucial to American concerns.

''I am for the legal authority,'' insists the mild-mannered, intellectual Berri. ''I don't ask to be president,'' he adds, referring to the confessional system that gives the presidency to the Maronite Christians, the prime ministership to the Sunni Muslims, and the speakership of the parliament to the Shiites. ''I only want to have equal rights with other communities.''

Such respect for central authority, rare among militia leaders in Lebanon, stems from the fact that the scattered Shiites, unlike the Christians and the Druzes with their mountain strongholds, have the most to gain from a united Lebanon. Their appreciation of this is clearly shown by a policy decision not to encourage defections from the Lebanese Army, where 60 percent of the soldiers are Shiites. This creates a situation where Amal and Army relatives could be fighting each other, but Shiite defectors from the Army are told to go back.

However, Amal does not deny that its last-ditch weapon could be to call all Shiites from the Army to its side.

Opinions vary as to why the government has virtually ignored Amal, with all the attendant risks. Some informed Lebanese say that the reason is Berri's inability to speak for all the Shiites, given Israeli and Syrian occupation of large segments of Shiite areas. President Gemayel prefers to deal with parliamentary speaker Kamal Assad, a member of the old guard, and with the Shiite spiritual leader Sheikh Chamseddin. Others claim that Berri has not proven he can control agitators within the suburbs, including about 65 communists and perhaps 200 Shiite Islamic fanatics who may be involved in attacks on Lebanese Army troops.

But other analysts believe that President Gemayel was focusing his attention on US efforts to persuade Syrian and Israeli troops to leave Lebanon. They say the President was under pressure from the Maronite Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, not to dilute Christian power.

Amal leaders say they don't want to use violence because they do not think it will bring political results. But, says Amal No. 2 leader Col. Akef Haidar, ''Fighting may be the last step if it is the only way.''

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