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Region's strife tears at Lebanon's fragile seams

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The political deadlock has left the government running at half speed with at least four ministers living at the Grand Serail because of security concerns. Several initiatives have been aired by Lebanese leaders from both sides of the political divide, as well as from the Arab League that has attempted to mediate a solution.

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The government, however, appears determined to withstand the opposition campaign, buoyed by public support that at least matches that of the opposition and the fact that the March 14 coalition forms the parliamentary majority.

Battleground for regional powers

The crisis has left many Lebanese acknowledging that the country's fate rests on the outcome of a regional struggle pitting the US and its Sunni Arab allies against Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah.

Last month, Iran and Saudi Arabia held rare high-level talks to tone down regional tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. According to a Lebanese political source close to the Saudi leadership, Lebanon was the "litmus test" for Saudi-Iranian cooperation. Saudi Arabia told Iran that the Lebanese government was willing to compromise with the opposition, but not at the expense of the international tribunal, the source says.

Ali Larijani, the Iranian national security adviser, traveled twice to Damascus apparently to persuade the Syrian leadership to relent on its opposition to the tribunal, but was unsuccessful. "The Syrians have made it clear to everyone that they will not accept the tribunal being formed," the political source says.

Although Syria disengaged from Lebanon nearly two years ago, it still wields considerable influence. Siniora acknowledged that for a small country like Lebanon, Syria is an inescapable fact of life. "We are sister countries and we have to make very clear that we want to have good relations with Syria," he said, adding, "Syria has to get used to the idea that Lebanon is a sovereign and independent country."

The opposition here disputes that Lebanon really is independent, arguing that Syrian hegemony has simply been replaced by Western, chiefly American, dominance.

"The US, France, and some Arab countries very clearly support the March 14 bloc and use the UN Security Council to promote certain positions outside Lebanese law," says Hizbullah's Sheikh Qassem.

Lebanon has become an unexpected cornerstone of President Bush's bid to foster democracy in the Arab world after Iraq slipped into bloodshed and sectarian conflict. The US was key in gathering some 41 countries in Paris last month for a donor conference for Lebanon that raised pledges of $7.6 billion to help revive the economy. US support for Lebanon has soared from roughly $50 million a year to $1 billion since the end of last summer's war.

"I don't think we need to be embarrassed by what we are doing here," says US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman. "There is an overlap where we hope Lebanon will go and where Siniora and the March 14 [coalition] want it to go."

But for some, US support is a poisoned chalice, illustrated during the devastating Hizbullah-Israel war last summer when the Bush administration gave full backing to Israel and delayed calling for a cease-fire.

Just as Tehran and Damascus are attempting through their local allies to deny the US a Levantine toehold, Washington hopes to check Iranian and Syrian ambitions in Lebanon and bolster the Western-friendly Lebanese government, analysts say.

That reality has left Siniora gloomily pondering how Lebanon has once more become a "battlefield for the wars of others."

"We have spent years and years and wasted thousands of lives on this point," he said.

Still, Elie Khoury, one of the architects of the Cedar Revolution, as the uprising following Hariri's death was called, urges patience and says that the long-term prospects for Lebanon are bright. "Revolutions don't happen in one day," he says. "The Cedar Revolution is not over."

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