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Global flash points: How to spot signs of peace

Monitor correspondents and experts suggest what to watch for in eight international conflicts.

(Page 2 of 4)



THE CRUX: This tiny country is a microcosm for broader battles gripping the Middle East as the region's key players – Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria – exert their influence in Lebanon in an ongoing battle for supremacy.

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THE STATUS: The ruling March 14 bloc, a coalition named for the 2005 Cedar Revolution that helped end Syrian domination of Lebanon, is pitted against the pro-Syria opposition, led by Hizbullah.

The US supports March 14 as a useful bulwark against Hizbullah and its backers, Syria and Iran. The rise of March 14 also represents the most successful example of the Bush administration's Middle East democracy drive. But Syria and Iran seek to deny Washington its toehold.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• Calm between US ally Israel and Hizbullah, in light of the reduced prospect of an American attack on Iran. And, perhaps, a thaw in relations between the US and Syria.

• Possible attacks from Fatah al-Islam, an Al Qaeda-influenced militant group. It has laid low since the Lebanese Army triumphed over it after a four-month battle in 2007 that was the nation's most grueling fight since the 1975-90 civil war. But isolated Fatah al-Islam cells remain in the north and in Palestinian refugee camps.

• Sunni-Shiite tensions. Overshadowing for the first time Lebanon's traditional Christian-Muslim divide, is the broader schism among Muslims in the Middle East.

IRAN

THE CRUX: The main conflict between the West and Iran is its nuclear-energy program, which the US has criticized as a cover for developing weapons. Washington has also accused Tehran of backing Hizbullah in Lebanon and destabilizing Iraq. There are also tensions between an increasingly powerful Shiite Iran and the Sunni Persian Gulf states.

THE STATUS: The US released a new National Intelligence Estimate in December concluding that Iran halted a weapons program in 2003 – reversing previous assessments and lowering expectations for an air strike. Iran's relations with Sunni Arab neighbors have also improved, with President Ahmadinejad receiving the first-ever official invitation to take part in the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia last month.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• More diplomatic tug-of-war over Iran's program, including a stronger push for more UN sanctions. Also, Iran's first-ever nuclear power plant at Bushehr, built by Russia, is due to begin operation.

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