IN the streets of west Beirut, the grim features of former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini have been replaced by those of another bearded but more kindly sage: Santa Claus. Thanks to the Greater Beirut plan, which came into effect on Dec. 3, the city is having its first real Christmas for many years. Store windows glitter with Yuletide displays, streets are festooned with dazzling illuminations, and sidewalks have been planted with gaily decked Christmas trees.
Previous Christmases have been inhibited by the intrusive presence of the Muslim militias and the black clouds of war. But now the militias have left the streets, and Beirut is - for the time being at least - at peace, with the Lebanese Army in control.
There are other transformations. With the capital reunited, bulldozers have been busy demolishing barricades along the old confrontation line that has divided the heart of Beirut since 1975. All the crossings on the line have been reopened for the first time in seven years.
The Greater Beirut program marks a step forward for the Arab-backed peace plan for Lebanon. The process continues with the current effort to form a new national unity government, embracing all the warring factions. The hope is that it will eventually be able to restore state rule in every corner of the still-fragmented country.
But few Lebanese are looking much beyond Greater Beirut, and there is little faith yet that it will lead to a full and final peace.
``It is a freezing of the situation, combined with an easing of conditions on the ground,'' says a Christian observer in east Beirut.
Militias still present
For one thing, the militias may no longer be visible, but they have not disappeared.
``Of course there are still Hizbullah people here,'' says Hassan Shoman, local security chief for the Iranian-backed faction speaking in a west Beirut street. ``We are still here because our houses are here, and we are staying and living normally just like other people. We don't need arms. But if there is a political problem, the arms could all be back within two hours.''
On the other side of town, in east Beirut, the powerful Lebanese Forces militia is a strongly felt presence, although the streets are officially policed by the Army.
``The militias' tanks and Howitzers have been removed, and so have most of its military units, but its security apparatus - perhaps 350 to 400 men - is still around in civilian clothes, checking who's coming and going,'' says a Christian source.
``Greater Beirut could be smaller Beirut again in a few months' time, if the Lebanese Army is unable to control it,'' warns Walid Jumblatt, the Druze militia chief, in an interview.
Despite the benefits Greater Beirut has brought, it has not generated enough optimism to strengthen the Lebanese currency. Far from rallying, as many had hoped, the Lebanese pound slumped further against the dollar.
``The security situation is better, but we want the dollar to come down, factories to get back to work, economic activity to pick up, and better living conditions before optimism will be justified,'' says a west Beirut street trader. ``At least give us water, electricity, telephones, and collect the garbage.''
Struggle now is political
The coming period is thought more likely to be one of political rather than military struggle, starting with complex wrangling over the formation of a new government, following the resignation of Selim al-Hoss's year-old Cabinet last Wednesday. Omar Karami, the newly elected prime minister, started talks Friday with the country's political leaders.
The government stepped down to make way for a more broadly based team. Although the Druze and Shiite militias were represented in the last Cabinet, the Christian militia was not.
Syrian leaders are deeply involved in consultations over formation of the new government. Much will clearly depend on whether they reach an understanding with the Christian militia, which has traditionally opposed the Syrian role in Lebanon.
One of the first items on the new Cabinet's agenda will be to formulate a clear official policy on Lebanon's ``distinguished relations'' with Syria - an issue that has always been resisted by the hard-line Christians. Without an agreed policy, subscribed to by the Christian militia, analysts believe it will be hard for the peace process to advance much further.
If the Arab peace plan is to stay on course, the new government will also be expected to preside over the complete disbanding of the militias by late March, something many Lebanese find hard to imagine happening.
``If there is a new political system, a new mentality, a new, all-embracing government in which a real dialogue is taking place, and a solution to the problem of the militias is agreed, then we will have no objection to dissolving our militia,'' said Alfred Madi, a senior official of the Lebanese Forces in an interview.
Many Lebanese also feel the outcome of the Gulf struggles will also help determine their fate.
``It will depend on the solution of the Gulf crisis,'' says Mr. Madi. ``I think from that we will see how things will turn out in Lebanon.''