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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 January 2007, 08:42 GMT
Risk of civil war haunts Beirut
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Beirut

Last summer, Beirut's southern suburbs were echoing with the sound of terrifying booms.

A destroyed building in Beirut's southern suburbs
Many bomb-scarred structures remain in Beirut's southern suburbs

Israeli warplanes pounded the Hezbollah stronghold in its 34-day-long war with the Shia movement led by Hassan Nasrallah.

Clouds of dust swirled through the warren of streets here as a series of Hezbollah offices and apartment blocks were reduced to rubble.

The streets were almost deserted apart from Hezbollah fighters who roamed their streets on Vespa scooters and were left dashing for cover when they heard the deafening explosions following the latest Israeli bombing run.

Visiting the same area six months later, I find the suburbs a very different place.

Tensions remain

The pot-holed streets are choked with battered Mercedes, trucks and the occasional bike.

Some Hezbollah fighters are now directing the traffic, says my taxi driver.

Most of the rubble from the collapsed buildings has been cleared away by trucks, although many bomb-scarred structures still remain.

In a few of these buildings, families have moved back into the apartments, their towels and bed sheets hanging from the balconies to dry in the midday sun.

While the clouds of dust may have cleared, tensions still remain.

Nobody here expects an immediate Israeli assault - although Israeli warplanes regularly buzz the suburbs.

A destroyed building in Beirut's southern suburbs
Resident are worried by trouble coming not from the skies, but closer to home

Instead, they are looking at the trouble closer to home.

The continuing showdown between the Lebanese government and the opposition is raising the spectre of serious sectarian violence in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has led mass demonstrations and strike action to try to force Lebanon's pro-Western government to resign.

Increasingly, the action is accompanied by violence, exposing the sectarian divides in Lebanese society.

On Thursday, rival groups of students clashed at Beirut's Arab university, leaving four dead.

Here in the southern suburbs, the vast majority of the residents stand squarely behind Hezbollah.

They believe that the current government - headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - is corrupt and unrepresentative of the population.

Rising fears

But many are worried that the current violence could quickly spiral out of control.

Every day it gets worse here. There is fear among the old and the young about a possible civil war
Hassan Monshek, taxi driver
"If the government stays in power then there will be killings day after day on both sides and nobody will be able to control it," says Mohammed Mousa, an electrician.

The 31-year-old insists that there is an "80 percent" chance of civil war.

While that opinion may seem stark, it is shared by many here who believe the country is staring into the abyss unless one side or the other backs down.

Hassan Monshek, 25, is a taxi driver but he is refusing to leave the southern suburbs fearful that his car will be set on fire or he will be attacked in another part of the city.

"Every day it gets worse here," he says.

"There is fear among the old and the young about a possible civil war."

For the residents of the southern suburbs, memories of their war with Israel seem to be fading as they are consumed by something far more disturbing.

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