IT would be easy to overblow the significance of Lebanese happily crossing, for the first time in years, the Green Line between East and West Beirut. Lebanon is still riven with sectarian and political fault lines, and its days-old peace remains precarious. Nonetheless, the picture of strolling pedestrians and cheerfully honking motorists passing through the previously fortified barrier between Beirut's Muslim and Christian sectors is - one hopes - a sign of brighter days for that shattered land. The dismantling of the Green Line follows the surrender of Gen. Michel Aoun, a renegade Christian army leader who for more than a year has defied the legitimate government of President Elias Hrawi. Aoun's men were finally overpowered Saturday by Syrian aircraft and ground forces, at the request of President Hrawi.
His departure opens up breathing space for the government, which took office last year under new constitutional arrangements negotiated by Lebanese leaders at Taif, Saudi Arabia. The presidency is reserved for a Christian, as before, but Muslims have greater powers. By winning the support of Lebanese across the political spectrum, Taif was a landmark achievement. Now the government can devote full efforts to realizing its promise.
A primary goal is to disband the heavily armed militias that have conducted Lebanon's many-sided civil war for 15 years. That won't be easy; it will require patient confidence-building efforts among the Muslim, Christian, Druze, and other factions whose interests the militias protect. Hrawi's proposal to turn Beirut into a militia-free zone is a first step. France, the United States, and other countries with influence should help him reach this objective.
The 800-lb. gorilla in Lebanon is Syria. Already in control of much of the country, now Syrian troops patrol Beirut itself. Damascus can call the tune. With a Lebanese government attentive to Syrian interests, though, Damascus has every reason to help end the chaos. And Syria probably wants to expand the good will it has accrued with the US by joining in the Gulf coalition against Iraq; it can do so by playing a constructive role in Beirut.
New hope flickers in Lebanon.