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Sectarian Tensions Simmer in Lebanon

Power-Sharing Pact Raising New Doubts

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; Page A12

BAAQLIN, Lebanon -- This hilltop town of stone homes and olive trees was the scene of intense fighting during Lebanon's civil war, a harsh memory that has faded in the quiet, prosperous life that has endured here for more than a decade. But the arrest last month of Neameh Qayssamani, a newly elected member of the municipal council, and dozens of other men here in the Chouf Mountains recalled a fearful time most people believed had passed forever.

Qayssamani belongs to the largely Druze political party led by Walid Jumblatt, a former militia leader and leading critic of the move by parliament last month to extend the term of Lebanon's Christian president. Qayssamani was arrested by plainclothes police on Sept. 16 and spent the next three days in an interrogation cell in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, about 15 miles north of here. He said the government's message was clear: Jumblatt should hold his tongue, like the rest of Lebanon's cowed political class.

Lebanese security forces inspect the car of former cabinet minister Marwan Hamadi after a bombing Oct. 1 injured him and killed his driver. (Adnan Hajj Ali -- AP)

"They told me don't think I am special, because no one is," said Qayssamani, who was a foot soldier in Jumblatt's militia during the civil war and now lives in a small stone house here with his wife and five children. "They told me, 'Even if you were a minister, you wouldn't be special.' "

Then, on Oct. 1, Marwan Hamadi, a Druze from Baaqlin who had resigned his cabinet post to protest President Emile Lahoud's term extension, was gravely injured by a bomb that exploded in West Beirut as his car passed. His driver, a former soldier from a neighboring village, was killed. The next day, a government agent casually handed the driver's brother a large envelope holding his remains, something his family considered an insult.

To many Lebanese, the recent wave of harassment in the Chouf Mountains and violence on the streets of Beirut has revealed that the sectarian tensions and foreign powers that propelled the country's civil war for 15 years remain dangerous elements of political life.

Lebanon has prospered since a peace accord imposed order on its fractious political system 14 years ago, but political leaders have begun questioning whether the power-sharing agreement that ended the war remains a viable formula for governing the country. While no one is predicting renewed fighting, many Lebanese leaders say they fear a return of smaller-scale sectarian strife and delays to proposed reforms designed to salvage the country's dismal public finances.

Lebanon's political landscape is still dominated by the militia leaders who waged its civil war, and many of the old animosities remain close to the surface. The war pitted the Lebanese military and Christian militias against Palestinian guerrilla organizations fighting alongside armed groups from the country's Muslim majority. Israel, Iran, Syria and other countries vying for regional clout backed individual militias with money and guns.

Those alliances shifted frequently over the course of the fighting, which killed 150,000 Lebanese before a 1989 peace agreement guaranteed a more equitable distribution of power among the country's Christian president, Sunni Muslim prime minister and Shiite Muslim speaker of parliament. Under the agreement, the presidency ceded a share of power to the cabinet, which more broadly represents the country's various religious groups.

The peace agreement also envisioned the withdrawal of the thousands of troops that Syria sent to Lebanon in 1976 at the invitation of the country's Christian president. But as many as 20,000 Syrian troops remain in Lebanon, and their continuing presence is straining the political framework.

Tensions came to a head last month when the Lebanese parliament amended the constitution to allow Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, three more years as president. Leaders of the country's Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Christian communities spoke out against the extension, and Lahoud now faces a rising opposition that includes not only Jumblatt's party but some of his former Christian supporters.

The vote came a day after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution sponsored by the United States and France that tacitly called on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, disarm Hezbollah, a Shiite militia that operates here with Syrian approval, and cease meddling in the domestic politics of its smaller neighbor. But the international pressure, while welcomed by many Lebanese, has had little practical effect. In a speech Sunday in Damascus, the Syrian capital, President Bashar Assad called the resolution "blatant meddling" in Lebanese-Syrian affairs.

Many Lebanese leaders have praised Syria for helping solidify Lebanon's fragile peace. Jumblatt had been among them. But he said he had grown "fed up" with Syria's "intervention in all sectors of public life."

"This is primarily an internal matter of keeping a liberal democratic country with freedom of the press from becoming an Arab clone," Jumblatt said in an interview last week at his graceful home in Beirut. "We are mature, we can manage our own affairs. We are clever people. But Lahoud is not going to back down, and this is going to be a long struggle. We should expect more car bombs."

Western diplomats and Lebanese political figures, most of whom decline to speak publicly on the subject, say they believe that pro-Syrian forces inside Lebanon carried out the attack on Hamadi in league with Syrian intelligence. Senior Syrian officials have denied involvement.

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