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What Next, Lebanon?
Consternation Grips Nation as It Again Looks Up From War's Ruins

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 30, 2006; A01

MUKHTARA, Lebanon, July 29 -- From his hilltop citadel, Walid Jumblatt was a worried man Saturday. In Lebanon's Byzantine, ever-shifting politics, the leader of the country's Druze community has emerged as one of Hezbollah's harshest critics. But a savvy veteran, he understood the arithmetic of the Middle East these days: In war, survival often means victory. And after 18 days of the conflict with Israel, he was bracing for what Hezbollah's survival would mean for a country seized with volatile uncertainty.

Lebanon's survival, he said, was now in the hands of Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah.

"We have to acknowledge that they have defeated the Israelis. It's not a question of gaining one more village or losing one more village. They have defeated the Israelis," he said. "But the question now is to whom Nasrallah will offer this victory."

In contrast to the first days of the war, with ambitious U.S. and Israeli vows to dismantle the Lebanese group's militia, hardly anyone now expects Hezbollah to fade from a scene in which it has long played an intrinsic part, drawing support from a Shiite Muslim community that feels even more besieged today. And in a country where one community's gain is another's loss, Hezbollah's survival seems sure to fundamentally alter Lebanon, which is already reeling from the shock of a conflict that has killed hundreds of civilians, forced 750,000 to flee their homes and left the country's infrastructure in shambles. For a country whose identity was never settled, its religious diversity more curse than blessing, Lebanon is facing the very contradictions of its history.

Even before a cease-fire has been reached, Lebanese have begun to ask: What kind of a nation will the war leave?

From the southern city of Tyre to the Christian suburbs of Beirut, residents dourly talk about the prospects of civil war in a country still shadowed by 15 years of fratricide that ended in 1990. Divisions between Shiite Muslims and the country's other sects -- Druze, Sunni Muslim and Christian -- have grown deeper than at any time in perhaps a generation. To an unprecedented degree, Lebanese speculate whether the government can remain viable, or even survive.

Nasrallah strenuously tried to address those worries Saturday, in a broadcast on his group's television channel, al-Manar. "I tell the Lebanese that no one among you should be afraid of the victory of the resistance," he said, sounding low-key and assured. "I assert that the victory will be for all of Lebanon, for every Arab, Muslim and honorable Christian, who stood with Lebanon and defended it."

More reflective of the mood were the words of Hassan Taryaki, a Sunni helping care for Shiite refugees in the southern city of Sidon, where 57,000 Shiites have fled their homes.

Taryaki, an earnest 21-year-old, has worked for days with 30 other volunteers at the Saint Joseph University, a hilltop campus in the seaside Sunni city where 440 Shiite Muslim displaced have sought refuge. They slept just a few feet away in the courtyard, in classrooms and on a shady grass bluff overlooking a rocky valley. But a chasm separated his sentiments from theirs.

"The country's all ruined now," he said. "Not just what was reconstructed but everything. It's all ruined."

A student at Lebanese American University, Taryaki was blunt. He said Hezbollah would emerge from the war with its organization intact. It would keep its weapons in one form or another, and Lebanon's other sects would have to respond.

"If Hezbollah wins, it will become the leader of the country, and everyone else will start rebuilding their militias all over again to have their say," he said. "If you have a militia, you can survive. If you don't, you can't. It will be just like the 1980s."

The goal now, he said, was for each community "to protect itself."

U.S. officials have insisted that Lebanon cannot return to a status quo ante, but Taryaki expressed fear about what a new order would bring.

"We're not a strong country," he said grimly.

'We Already Had a War'

Sidon is the birthplace of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who played a pivotal role in rebuilding Beirut's infrastructure and reconstructing its downtown, a symbol of the country's recovery from the 1975-90 civil war. His assassination last year unleashed mass protests in Beirut's Martyrs' Square that helped force the Syrian government to end its 29-year military presence in the country. The demonstrations culminated on March 14. A week earlier, Hezbollah had organized a pro-Syrian demonstration. While huge, it was the smaller of the two. In a way, Lebanon still remains a country of those two protests.

In the year that followed, efforts at reconciliation among Lebanon's factions went nowhere, and Hezbollah effectively blocked any effort to disarm its militia, the last from the civil war to still bear arms.

"We already had a war going on inside this country before this war started," said Tayseer Shaalan, a 28-year-old Shiite Muslim who fled in a 10-car convoy of 100 people 10 days ago from his village of Bidyas, near the southern city of Tyre.

On the bluff along the edge of the campus, he sat with his neighbors. In their words were the sometimes ambiguous sentiments of the Shiite community: confidence in their numbers as the largest single sect in Lebanon, underlined by a sense of siege of a group long mistreated, ignored and marginalized in Lebanese politics, their fate in the hands of feudal lords and reactionary clerics.

They often talk these days about the 1982 Israeli invasion, when thousands of Palestinian fighters were forced to leave on boats from Beirut, ending what was for a time a Palestinian-run state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon.

"They can't put us all on a boat," said Abu Malek Jiha, a 40-year-old driver from Tyre.

Sitting on the ground, sharing cups of bitter coffee, others nodded in agreement. A blast echoed in the distance. "Did you hear that?" Shalaan asked. A friend, Ghaleb Atwi, glanced in the distance toward the explosion, then looked to the future.

"What's the justification to take the weapons away from Hezbollah?" he asked. "To protect Israel? It has the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, and we have rifles and old rockets defending our children and our land on which our grandfathers lived."

Each offered his own warning of what would happen if Hezbollah were forcibly disarmed.

"If they try to impose it by violence, the war will grow even more intense and wider," Atwi said.

"Violence won't lead to anything," Jiha added. "It will only create more war. Mark my words."

Hezbollah as Kingmaker?

Lanky and world-weary, Jumblatt offered a gloomy view of Lebanon's predicament. "We are stuck between the Israeli hammer and the Syrian and Iranian anvil," he said.

From the start of the conflict, he has insisted that Hezbollah was acting at the behest of its allies, Iran and Syria, each country with its own agenda -- Iran to protect its nuclear program, Syria to reassert itself in the region and avoid an international tribunal investigating its possible involvement in Hariri's death. Jumblatt's charges have angered Hezbollah leaders, who have addressed them specifically. "This victory will be an incentive to strengthen our national unity," Nasrallah said Saturday.

Jumblatt said he saw not unity, but division. He didn't believe Hezbollah would disarm, despite its endorsing a Lebanese plan for a cease-fire that suggested it might do so. He was blunt in saying the government had no power to force it to do so. He dismissed talk by others of another civil war; his militia was blamed for its own share of atrocities in the last conflict. But, he said, "I do fear for the future of Lebanon."

"Either we will have a state able to establish its control over the country or we will have a state comparable to what is happening in Palestine," he said, "a reduced weakened state and a strong militia beside the Lebanese army that decides war and peace at any time and has its schedule decided by the Iranians and the Syrians." He called it "a kind of coup d'etat."

"I don't see a state of Lebanon surviving with a militia next to an army. That's it," he said.

So far, the leaders of Lebanon's factions have struck a united front in the face of Israel's attacks. Unlike in the civil war, no one has openly endorsed Israeli and American aims, though in private, many have hoped the conflict would force Hezbollah's disarmament. But the careful positions are in part to keep credibility and nationalist credentials for jockeying in what follows the war.

Many fear that even if strife doesn't erupt again, a Hezbollah considered victorious would become a kingmaker in politics.

"Hezbollah would be able, for instance, to impose its favorite choice of president of the republic, put a veto on candidates for becoming members of the government, and so on," said Melhem Chaoul, a sociologist and professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut. "We would have a semi-totalitarian state in the form of a consensual democracy."

And not all share Jumblatt's assurance a new civil war won't erupt. "We're all very worried about that," said a Sunni minister, who asked that his name not be used.

Anger in the Air

There was a contentious two-hour television show last Wednesday on LBC television, a channel aligned with a Christian Lebanese party. On "Talk of the People," youths of various factions squared off over the war.

Ali al-Ghoul, a guest on the show, said that to him, Iran and Israel were the same, that loyalty to Iran was the same as loyalty to Israel.

Another guest, Osama Wehbeh, weighed in. "Who is going to win, Lebanon, Hezbollah or Iran?"

A third, Georges Jreij, then raised his voice. He contended Israel was long planning this war, even before its two soldiers were captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid, echoing the charges Nasrallah has made. "Why should we allow Israel to destroy Lebanon without having anything to negotiate with?" he asked. "Has surrendering become the rule and resistance the odd thing to do?"

The show offered a glimpse of how the talk in the streets of Lebanon is often far more angry than the words of the political elite.

"From what I see around me, I think there's a 90 percent chance of a civil war," said Faten Dimasi, a 29-year-old who works at a jewelry store in Sidon. "There are going to be problems between Sunnis and Shiites."

Lebanon's politics are often oversimplistically broken down by its religious sects. They do create the outlines of public opinion, and the leaders themselves sometimes command blind loyalty. But within each grouping, there is still a great deal of diversity that transcends religious loyalties. On the LBC show, the guests' opinions sometimes ran counter to their religious affiliations.

Followers of Christian leader Michel Aoun have been some of the most active in providing aid to displaced Shiite Muslims, coordinating with Hezbollah's own relief efforts. Across the country, nonsectarian grass-roots groups have mobilized to provide help in shows of national unity.

In cities such as Sidon, Sunni clerics have urged a jihad, or holy war, that goes beyond Hezbollah in confronting Israel, and recoil at what they see as the overly close ties of the community's leadership to the United States. "Fighting is the natural state of relations with the Zionist enemy until it is wiped out," declares a banner in a Sunni neighborhood in Sidon. There, one of the most radical of the Sunni groups, often at odds with Hezbollah, has deployed 500 activists to help resettle 8,000 displaced Shiites.

But the infusion of tens of thousands of dislocated people, sometimes crowding the streets, has frayed social ties in neighborhoods that have become less and less diverse since the civil war ended. Streets often form borders. Many grumble over their newly arrived neighbors. Others worry that a streetfight could become something more, or that Hezbollah might seek to base its armaments in their neighborhoods.

"When you have guests staying over one week, it's fine; two weeks, it's fine as well. But if it goes on longer, then there are going to be some problems, I think," said Mira Ghandour, 42, a marketing executive in the Christian quarter of Ashrafiyeh.

Other Lebanese say they don't trust themselves.

"This is the way we are. This is our nature," Dimasi said. "If we don't find someone else to fight, we'll end up fighting ourselves. If we don't have any troubles, then we'll find them."

On the television show "Talk of the People," the troubles raged Wednesday night.

At one point, Luana Saghieh asked what Israel had lost in all this.

"We are the one who were taken 20 years back," she said. "I don't care. I will make peace with the devil for the sake of Lebanon," she added.

Guests lashed out at her. One said she cared only about her " bronzage ," French for suntan that has become colloquial here.

In time, the arguments became so heated that producers had to act.

They shut off microphones of all but the one speaking.

'From the People'

Ghassan Farran, a 49-year-old doctor, stood on top of the rubble that was once his house in the southern city of Tyre.

He lived in a building that was pulverized Wednesday by four Israeli missiles. One apartment was believed to be the rarely used office of Nabil Kaouk, a Hezbollah leader in southern Lebanon. The blasts, in a densely built quarter of the downtown, chiseled a circle of destruction around neighboring residences. Rubble was piled up on still-intact balconies like discarded furniture. Nearby were the photo albums of Farran, who had already moved his wife, two sons and two daughters a block away.

He grabbed the pictures, flipping through them one by one. In all, hundreds of his photos had burned, his most painful loss.

"All the dreams, me and my children," he said. "This is the gift of America."

He didn't deny that Hezbollah kept an office there, but grew angry over the 16 civilians hurt.

"Is this terrorism?" he asked, gesturing at the remnants of his house. "I am a terrorist?" he asked, pointing to himself. "Every place in southern Lebanon has a Hezbollah office. Hezbollah comes from the people, not from Syria or Iran or someplace else. If they want to destroy Hezbollah, they're going to have to destroy all of Lebanon, all of it."

Farran is Shiite, but a leftist, his secular politics far from Hezbollah's amalgam of Shiite narrative, religious revivalism and Arab nationalism. In an interview the next day, he said he felt alone, stranded in this war and what might follow.

"What choice do I have? Fighting Israel or leaving Lebanon. I can't leave Lebanon. I have to stay here, and if I stay, I need someone to protect me," he said, dragging on a cigarette. "Hezbollah is the only military force that can protect me."

But protection, he acknowledged, didn't go both ways. "The Lebanese community is divided. Here are two opposite opinions of Lebanon in the future. Everyone knows that. What I hope is that the Lebanese citizens will not kill each other after the war. That's what I hope."

He paused for a long moment, considering the possibility of that civil war.

"I hope not," he said finally. "But, yes, I worry."

Special correspondents Alia Ibrahim and Lynn Maalouf in Beirut contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company