Region's strife tears at Lebanon's fragile seams

While the murder of a former prime minister two years ago triggered the "Cedar Revolution" that inspired hope for a new era of prosperity, today Lebanon is bitterly divided, paralyzed by political strife.

As it prepared to mark the second anniversary of Rafik Hariri's assassination Wednesday, explosions Tuesday killed three people in a town near Beirut, another sign that Lebanon's hope for stability and peace are far from being realized.

"We are being dragged into a big regional conflict and power play," says Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. "On one side we are trying to establish ... independence and on the other side we are confronted by the state of Hizbullah backed by the Syrians and the Iranians."

At stake is the survival of the government – one the West holds up as an example for democratic reform in the region – said Prime Minister Fouad Sinora in an interview at the Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the government building that overlooks downtown Beirut.

"We are a government defending real democracy and real independence, which is unique in this part of the world," said Mr. Siniora.

Tuesday's bombings in a Christian town targeted commuter buses that were hired to transport participants to Wednesday's planned rally.

Saad Hariri, son and political heir of the slain former premier, described the bombings as terrorism. "It's part of the criminal series of assassinations that have been happening in Lebanon," he says. "It's a message to put fear into people's hearts before the memorial to my late father."

The attacks come as the US-backed government remains locked in a political battle with the opposition, led by the militant Shiite group Hizbullah. That struggle has seen hundreds of antigovernment protesters camped out in central Beirut and street clashes between rival factions that have left at least nine people dead and more than 300 wounded.

A substantial turnout is expected Wednesday to honor Mr. Hariri, who died in a massive truck bomb blast in Beirut along with 22 other people in 2005. The gathering beside his tomb will be as much a gesture of support for the beleaguered government as a commemoration.

The mourners will gather just yards from the tents of the opposition supporters, raising concerns that the tribute will stir further violence. However, organizers insist the event will pass peacefully.

"We don't believe Rafik Hariri would like to see a bloodbath on his commemoration day," says Marwan Hamade, a government minister with the leading March 14 coalition, the anti-Syrian group named for the 2005 rally that sparked the uprising resulting in Syria's exit.

Impact of Hizbullah-Israeli war

The crisis began after Israel's 34-day onslaught against Lebanon last summer. Hizbullah accused the government of tacitly cooperating with the US and Israel in seeking its destruction. The group sparked the war after it abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid (the soldiers are still being held).

In November, six ministers, including all five Shiites, quit the cabinet prior to a vote on approving a UN draft resolution on forming an international tribunal to try Hariri's killers.

Hizbullah officials say the resignation was in protest of the March 14 coalition monopolizing cabinet decisions, rather than opposition to the tribunal. But Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy leader, admits that Hizbullah is concerned the tribunal will be used by its enemies to settle old scores against the Shiite organization and its Syrian ally.

"We have no problem with the international tribunal if it stays within the limits of the criminal investigation," he says. "But we refuse that this tribunal be used in a political context to finish America's outstanding issues with certain parties in the region."

But the March 14 coalition, which forms the backbone of the government, says that scuttling the international tribunal is key to the opposition campaign. "It is the crux of the matter," said Siniora. "We never really wanted it to be used in any manner against anybody – Syrian or non-Syrian. Definitely this is creating certain discomfort among certain people."

The political deadlock has left the government running at half speed with at least four ministers living at the Grand Serail because of security concerns. Several initiatives have been aired by Lebanese leaders from both sides of the political divide, as well as from the Arab League that has attempted to mediate a solution.

The government, however, appears determined to withstand the opposition campaign, buoyed by public support that at least matches that of the opposition and the fact that the March 14 coalition forms the parliamentary majority.

Battleground for regional powers

The crisis has left many Lebanese acknowledging that the country's fate rests on the outcome of a regional struggle pitting the US and its Sunni Arab allies against Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah.

Last month, Iran and Saudi Arabia held rare high-level talks to tone down regional tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. According to a Lebanese political source close to the Saudi leadership, Lebanon was the "litmus test" for Saudi-Iranian cooperation. Saudi Arabia told Iran that the Lebanese government was willing to compromise with the opposition, but not at the expense of the international tribunal, the source says.

Ali Larijani, the Iranian national security adviser, traveled twice to Damascus apparently to persuade the Syrian leadership to relent on its opposition to the tribunal, but was unsuccessful. "The Syrians have made it clear to everyone that they will not accept the tribunal being formed," the political source says.

Although Syria disengaged from Lebanon nearly two years ago, it still wields considerable influence. Siniora acknowledged that for a small country like Lebanon, Syria is an inescapable fact of life. "We are sister countries and we have to make very clear that we want to have good relations with Syria," he said, adding, "Syria has to get used to the idea that Lebanon is a sovereign and independent country."

The opposition here disputes that Lebanon really is independent, arguing that Syrian hegemony has simply been replaced by Western, chiefly American, dominance.

"The US, France, and some Arab countries very clearly support the March 14 bloc and use the UN Security Council to promote certain positions outside Lebanese law," says Hizbullah's Sheikh Qassem.

Lebanon has become an unexpected cornerstone of President Bush's bid to foster democracy in the Arab world after Iraq slipped into bloodshed and sectarian conflict. The US was key in gathering some 41 countries in Paris last month for a donor conference for Lebanon that raised pledges of $7.6 billion to help revive the economy. US support for Lebanon has soared from roughly $50 million a year to $1 billion since the end of last summer's war.

"I don't think we need to be embarrassed by what we are doing here," says US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman. "There is an overlap where we hope Lebanon will go and where Siniora and the March 14 [coalition] want it to go."

But for some, US support is a poisoned chalice, illustrated during the devastating Hizbullah-Israel war last summer when the Bush administration gave full backing to Israel and delayed calling for a cease-fire.

Just as Tehran and Damascus are attempting through their local allies to deny the US a Levantine toehold, Washington hopes to check Iranian and Syrian ambitions in Lebanon and bolster the Western-friendly Lebanese government, analysts say.

That reality has left Siniora gloomily pondering how Lebanon has once more become a "battlefield for the wars of others."

"We have spent years and years and wasted thousands of lives on this point," he said.

Still, Elie Khoury, one of the architects of the Cedar Revolution, as the uprising following Hariri's death was called, urges patience and says that the long-term prospects for Lebanon are bright. "Revolutions don't happen in one day," he says. "The Cedar Revolution is not over."

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