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Last Updated: Friday, 26 January 2007, 17:19 GMT
Lebanon clashes fuel civil war fears
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Beirut

Lebanese army in Beirut, 26/1/2007
Despite the calm, the situation in Lebanon is seen as explosive
The Lebanese capital Beirut is largely quiet and people are going about their business again, after fierce clashes on the southern edge of the city on Thursday between Shia opponents and Sunni supporters of the government.

But tensions remain high, after scenes which stirred memories of the sectarian and factional strife which marked 15 years of civil war in the 1970s and 80s, and fears that there might be a recurrence.

There has been no sign of a break in the deadlock between the opposition, led by Hezbollah, and the Western-backed, anti-Syrian government in Beirut.

Nobody seems to know where events will now lead.

All sides are agreed on one thing: that the current situation is extremely explosive, and that there is a very real danger of the country sliding back into a complex civil war that would be very hard to stop.

That realisation was probably the biggest factor persuading the opposition, driven by Hezbollah and its Shia allies - but including significant Christian and some less credible Sunni factions - to end the contentious general strike on Tuesday, and to call their supporters off the streets of Beirut on Thursday.

The war is on - it is a trial of strength between the outside actors involved in Lebanon
Lebanese analyst

It also prompted an unusual flurry of contacts between Saudi Arabia, which is influential with Lebanon's Sunnis, and Iran, which backs Hezbollah and is also allied to Syria.

But all this has not yet produced any sign of movement towards what is desperately needed - some serious reconciliation talks, with give and take on both sides.

Hezbollah and its allies still insist on enough seats in government to give them veto power, and on early general elections, which they are convinced would do away with a government they regard as too close to America and the West.

Burnt cars in Beirut, one day after clashes
The clashes sparked memories of Lebanon's 15-year civil war
The government itself, fresh from winning nearly $8bn (4bn) of largely Western aid pledges at this week's Paris conference, has so far shown no sign of giving way.

Despite the evident dangers, many Lebanese analysts have concluded that there is little chance of the Lebanese themselves coming to terms unless their outside patrons reach an understanding and encourage them to do so.

Many see the struggle in terms of the global standoff between the United States and Iran.

The Iranians do seem keen to avoid a Sunni-Shia sectarian flare-up in Lebanon.

But they and their Syrian allies also want to redress the strategic balance.

'Trial of strength'

The current anti-Syrian government in Beirut was formed after the Syrians had been pressured into staging a humiliating withdrawal of their forces from Lebanon two years ago, when regional conditions were very different.

Now, the Americans are seen to be floundering in Iraq, and their Israeli allies are perceived to have failed in their effort to destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon last July and August.

Lebanese try to put out flames from a burning car in a Beirut street
The clashes followed weeks of heightened tension in Lebanon
Lebanese sources say that behind the scenes, Syria, which retains many instruments of influence in Lebanon, is adamant that the balance of power must also change in Beirut, while the Americans are equally insistent that it must not.

"The war is on," said one Lebanese analyst.

"It is a trial of strength between the outside actors involved in Lebanon. The clashes on the ground on Thursday got out of control - but which side is going to agree to pull back?"

"Syria is looking for nothing short of total surrender in both the political and security arenas," he added.

Syrian assets in Lebanon include very strong ties with the two factions which dominate Shia politics - Hezbollah and its mainstream ally, Amal, headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

The Shia are the largest of Lebanon's many sects.

Syria was also instrumental in reconstructing the Lebanese Army and security forces after the civil war, and retains strong influence there too, as well as among Christian, Sunni and Alawite factions in North Lebanon.

'Playing with fire'

All this Syrian clout is largely invisible, but very definite.

But some analysts believe Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has painted himself into a corner, embarking on a course that will be hard to pursue without triggering the sectarian civil war he insists he will not be drawn into.

"Nasrallah is playing with fire," said one observer.

"He has pitched expectations among his supporters so high, that it will be hard for him to back off."

Lebanon is left trapped in a highly dangerous limbo, hostage to the next flare-up on the ground

If a solution requires a strategic understanding between the US on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other, it will clearly be a long time coming.

In the wake of the Israeli invasion in 1982, America pulled its own forces out of Lebanon in 1983 and effectively left the country to Syrian influence until 2004.

But times have changed.

Washington under George W Bush now sees Lebanon, like Iraq and Palestine, as one of the battlefields in the black-and-white war against "terror", with a perceived need to bolster "moderates" so they can isolate and defeat "the extremists".

So Lebanon is left trapped in a highly dangerous limbo, hostage to the next flare-up on the ground, which could see the tinderbox explode into the comprehensive civil strife that now threatens to engulf the country with incalculable consequences.

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