Lebanese fight Syria's grip

The Lebanese Army arrested some 250 anti-Syria Christians last week, sparking a political crisis.

It was supposed to be the climax of an historic weekend. Lebanon's two founding sects - the Maronite Catholics and Druze Muslims - formally ended 160 years of hatred, which had incited their civil war in the 1980s. A visit by the two sect leaders gave hope to the dream of a Lebanon that could function independently of Syria.

But events following a celebration of mass in the Christian village of Deir al-Qamar, which is in the Druze-dominated Shouf mountains near Beirut, showed just how far away that goal remains.

At the Aug. 5 mass, President Lahoud was greeted by hundreds of Christian protesters who are supporters of a banned, anti-Syrian party called the Lebanese Forces. They were demanding the release from jail of their leader, Samir Geagea. Lahoud's response has sparked the most serious crisis of his 2-1/2-year presidency, and injected new urgency into resolving the ongoing debate over Syria's dominance of Lebanon.

Two days after the protests, the Lebanese Army launched a sweep, sending armored vehicles and soldiers onto street corners in Christian districts of Beirut and its suburbs. Military helicopters flew menacingly low over the city three nights in a row.

By the end they had arrested some 250 Christian, anti-Syria activists, many of whom were apprehended from their homes and workplaces. Some were senior members of the Lebanese Forces, and one was the top aide to Gen. Michel Aoun, an exiled former Lebanese Army commander who led an ill-fated war against Syrian forces in 1989.

The Army charged that those arrested had been plotting with Israel to split Lebanon into sectarian federal states.

But the bulk of Lebanese question the lack of evidence produced by the authorities. Even government ministers have condemned the campaign, claiming that they received no prior notification of the sweep, and that the arrests were illegal.

To many Lebanese, the crackdown confirms that security matters in the country have been taken away from the government and placed firmly in the hands of President Lahoud (a former Army commander), the Army, and intelligence services, acting in close coordination with Syria.

The clampdown reflects the pro-Syria regime's discomfort over the growing public consensus against Syria, says Farid Khazen, a professor of political science at the American University in Beirut.

"Reconciliation between Christians and Muslims runs against the argument fed by the government and Syria that the Lebanese are unable to agree on anything, [and that] therefore there is always the possibility of conflict," Khazen says. "Exactly the opposite has happened in the last year, with a growing agreement on fundamental issues. Any consensus between the Lebanese [sides] becomes a threat to the regime."

Meanwhile, the arrests apparently caught most government ministers unawares, including Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was on a visit to Pakistan at the time.

In a candid interview with Lebanon's NBN television channel last week, Prime Minister Hariri claimed that his phones were being tapped and he was powerless to stop it.

"We cannot apply the law at present, because there are people above the law," he said in a clear reference to the Army and intelligence bodies. "Thus far there is no way to stop these people without a confrontational collision. This will have adverse repercussions on the country."

Ghazi Aridi, the Lebanese information minister, denounced the arrests and warned of "huge ramifications."

"This is not the way to deal with things," Mr. Aridi said. "What happened should have been screened by the government beforehand."

A statement from the Army accused "internal elements" of using "the climate of freedom and democracy to stage destabilizing disorders, provoke sectarian dissension, and abuse the highest authority in the country."

Syrian troops entered the country in 1976 as part of an Arab peacekeeping force charged with ending the year-old civil war. But, although the presence of Syrian troops was supposed to be a temporary measure, they never left. By 1989, after Lebanon's warring factions fought themselves to a stalemate, Syria imposed a peace agreement. Since then, any major decisions in Lebanon have been closely coordinated between Syria and its Lebanese allies.

But the past year has witnessed growing calls in Lebanon for an end to Syria's one-sided relationship. The growing consensus has also led to a remarkable alliance between the Maronite Catholics and the Druze community, bitter enemies since the 1840s. In 1983, the Maronites and Druze fought for control of the Shouf in one of the bloodiest episodes of Lebanon's civil war.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt last year became increasingly outspoken in his opposition to Syria's hegemony. His views struck a chord with the Christians, who have spearheaded the anti-Syrian campaign. In response last June, Syrian troops withdrew from Beirut, reducing its overall strength to some 20,000 soldiers.

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