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Page last updated at 17:50 GMT, Monday, 28 January 2008

Army drawn into Lebanese crisis

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Beirut

All sides in the tense standoff in Lebanon seem concerned to contain the flames after the clashes on Sunday in southern Beirut, the worst and bloodiest the country has seen for at least a year.

Lebanese army soldier on patrol in Beirut on Monday
The army is one of the few institutions with a reputation for neutrality

But there is no doubt that the disturbances have raised the already extremely high tensions by several notches.

They have also raised questions about the role of the Lebanese army, which despite its reputed neutrality found itself confronting the supporters of one side in the current political deadlock.

The western-backed government, headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, declared Monday a day of national mourning and ordered schools and universities to close for the day.

The step was clearly aimed at reducing the potential for further violence.

This time last year, disputes between students at a university campus in south Beirut led to violent clashes between Sunni and Shia partisans in which several people died.

No mass funerals

In line with Muslim custom, those who died in the latest clashes were buried with 24 hours.

But the opposition Shia movements Hezbollah and Amal, both of which lost followers shot dead in the violence, decided that the funerals should be conducted separately rather than a mass occasion at which anger could boil over.

[The opposition is] acting on the orders of the Syrian-Iranian axis, which is openly inciting disorder, and exploiting economic problems
Pro-government coalition statement

Nonetheless, there could be no mistaking the aggravating effect the killings have had on an acutely critical situation.

Both the main factions issued statements bitterly holding the other fully responsible for the bloodshed.

The 14 March coalition, which supports the western-backed government, accused what it called the "forces of the Syrian-Iranian axis" of "detonating the situation and stirring up dangerous disturbances" to derail an Arab initiative under discussion on Sunday at a meeting of the Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo.

The de facto authorities [are responsible for] every drop of blood shed
Hezbollah statement
It said the opposition were "acting on the orders of the Syrian-Iranian axis, which is openly inciting disorder, and exploiting economic problems... for which they are to blame, through their occupation of Beirut city centre and the consequent paralysis of economic activity".

This was a reference to the tented encampment set up by Hezbollah and its allies in December 2006 in downtown Beirut, physically besieging the government building and leading many shops and businesses to close their doors.

Power cuts

The Sunday clashes erupted when the Lebanese Army intervened to clear roads blocked with burning tyres by protesters objecting to frequent power cuts in the mainly Shia southern suburbs.

The suburbs routinely undergo electricity cuts of around 12 hours a day, sometimes more. Other parts of Beirut have cuts lasting three hours, sometimes less.

Funeral of opposition protester
Opposition groups deliberately tried to avoid mass protests at funerals

Hezbollah, which spearheads the opposition, issued an equally bitter statement holding "the de facto authorities" fully responsible for "every drop of blood shed", and demanding that the army announce clearly "who opened fire on innocent citizens demanding their social rights".

The opposition demanded a full investigation to determine whether those who died were shot by gunfire from the army, and if so, who gave the orders.

There has also been much speculation about a possible role by snipers, alleged to have picked off demonstrators from rooftops or balconies. Similar allegations were made after last year's disturbances.

"If someone other than the army was responsible for the deaths, who was it? ... Ignoring the criminal and covering up the crime is going too far in violating the blood of innocents," Hezbollah said.

Investigation

The army commander, Gen Michel Suleiman, was swift to pay a condolence visit on Monday to the Amal leader and speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri.

Who is embroiling the Army into the game of blood?
Headline in pro-Hezbollah paper
The army issued a statement expressing sympathy for the deaths and injuries, adding : "What happened yesterday was aimed at the army and the people equally."

It said that "investigations are now under way with utmost seriousness and speed, to determine what happened, to apportion responsibilities, and to take appropriate measures."

Some reports on Sunday suggested the army opened fire on the protestors after its soldiers themselves came under fire.

But the army command on Monday said that none of its wounded troops had been hit directly by bullets, though some had been injured by stones and fragments. It would not say how many had been hurt.

Setback for army

All those who died - at least seven people, and as many as nine according to some accounts - came from among the local Shia population.

Several were liaison officers from Amal and Hezbollah apparently engaged in co-ordinating with the army in trying to persuade the demonstrators to leave the streets.

The army has so far been seen as at least neutral in the political crisis. So much so that its commander, Gen Suleiman, has been backed by all sides as the favoured consensus candidate to take over the presidency of the republic, a post which the deadlock has left vacant since November.

It will now have its work cut out to regain that neutral status, following Sunday's bloodshed.

And Gen Suleiman's candidacy for the presidency may also be cast in doubt, a development which would set back to square one the little political progress that has been made in recent months.

'Conspiracy'

The clashes raised fears that conspirators might be trying to drag the army - seen as the country's last hope - into a confrontation with the Shia which could lead to the collapse of the military institution.

"Who is embroiling the army into the game of blood?" asked the front-page headline in al-Akhbar, a Beirut daily close to Hezbollah.

Many of the army's rank and file are Shia, and so are a good number of senior officers.

Hezbollah, which stood against the might of Israel for 33 days during the summer war in 2006 and emerged unbowed, is reckoned to be both stronger and more cohesive than the army should it come to a showdown that neither side seems to be seeking.

During the 1975-1990 civil war, the army fragmented along sectarian lines. Its reconstruction was mainly carried out under Syrian supervision during the years when Syrian troops ruled the roost in Lebanon until their withdrawal in 2005.

If the army were to go to pieces again, many Lebanese would lose hope of averting another largely-sectarian civil war between the factions supporting and opposing the Beirut government.


SEE ALSO
Seven killed in Beirut violence
27 Jan 08 |  Middle East
Beirut bomb kills top policeman
25 Jan 08 |  Middle East
In pictures: Beirut bomb attack
25 Jan 08 |  In Pictures
Constitutional impasse in Lebanon
10 Nov 07 |  Middle East
Country profile: Lebanon
15 Jan 08 |  Country profiles

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