Backsliding in Beirut? Tension Amid Elections

Clashes between rival militias remind some of Lebanon's 'bad old days.'

The gun battle took place less than 100 yards from the central district of Beirut, where the rubble of 15 years of Lebanon's civil war is being replaced with a multibillion-dollar building project.

The 24-hour-a-day construction efforts have pointed for several years to renewed hope in Lebanon since the war's end in 1990. But a recent clash between two Shiite Muslim militias over control of a local Muslim cultural center was an immediate reminder: The violent days of civil war are not really so long past.

The Lebanese Army intervened immediately, churning armored vehicles onto street corners. Passing Beirutis could be forgiven for feeling a giddy sense of dj vu.

The dispute between the pro-Syria Amal movement and pro-Iran Hizbullah was one of a series of incidents that began earlier this month during the Shiite Muslim religious holiday of Ashoura. The violence has everything to do with local elections that began Sunday and which represent the country's first municipal polls in 35 years. First indications show that Hizbullah is poised for a decisive victory over an alliance between Amal and the Lebanese government.

One Hizbullah partisan reportedly struck an Amal member. Weapons were drawn, and five Amal militiamen were wounded.

"Who says the militia mentality is finished?" asks one long-time observer of Lebanon's conflicts. "There are still 17 religious sects, they don't really agree with each other, and they've seen that they can impose their view with guns. It's still very fresh - lots of people are dreaming of the bad old days."

Both militias sought to downplay the incident, but few forget the still-devastated areas of Beirut's Green Line, the portion of the southeast of the city destroyed during heavy Amal-Hizbullah clashes during the war.

The dispute had "no political background," militia leaders said in a joint statement the next day. "The parties wish to stress the positive relationship between them" and pledged to "contain the repercussions of the incident that they both consider to be over."

Few believe that differences in local power struggles will be so easily brushed aside, and more violence is expected. "Sometimes this local dynamic is uncontrollable, and there are only so many walls upon which to put up posters," says the observer. "The elections are when [the parties'] actual strength might be revealed."

Some suspect Syria, close to both groups and the main powerbroker in Lebanon with 30,000 troops, is behind the rising tension. "These elections are revealing so many built-up tensions," says a Lebanese academic who asked not to be named. "Why now? Syria can stop it any time, but they can also take it all the way to civil war. A Hizbullah-Amal fight could destroy the infrastructure in 24 hours."

Though both militias are strongest in southern Lebanon and take part in guerrilla activities against Israeli troops occupying a strip of the south, Amal has been largely disarmed while Hizbullah has become a powerful, well-organized fighting force.

Others argue that Syria and the Lebanese government want calm - especially now that Israel has put them both in a tight corner by offering to pull troops out of southern Lebanon. Such a move - if carried out unilaterally - would deprive Syria of its main pressure point on Israel as Damascus tries to get back the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.

Despite the violence, one indication of how these militias might get through the current elections, which continue into next month, occurred on April 18, the second anniversary of the Israeli shelling of the United Nations shelter at Qana, in which 106 Lebanese refugees were killed. Qana is a primarily Amal area, but Hizbullah supporters marched to the memorial grave site. Amal militiamen blocked them, and there was grumbling on both sides. But Hizbullah stood down, and returned the next day.

"The Shiite militias," says one source in regular contact with both, "don't like to wash their dirty laundry in public."

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