As Tensions Rise in Lebanon, Residents Again Fear the Worst

By Alia Ibrahim, Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 21, 2008

BEIRUT -- Posters slapped up on the walls of Beirut's Shiite Muslim southern suburbs show the face of a slain Hezbollah leader and declare that his death is a "sign of the coming victory."

Just out of sight from Beirut's shores, U.S. warships ply the waters. Their presence, the Bush administration says, is the United States' own warning, directed at Syria, Iran and their local ally, the Shiite armed movement Hezbollah: The Americans are watching troubled Lebanon.

Lebanon's people, survivors of a 1975-90 civil war and persistent sectarian strife thereafter, are used to rumors of war sweeping the country. Now tensions are rising again among many Lebanese, as well as the regional and international powers that claim a strategic interest in the country's internal affairs.

The sharpest fears here center on the possibility of renewed clashes between Hezbollah and Israel, which fought for 33 days in 2006 after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. The war killed more than 1,000 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and more than 150 Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Today, normally sleepy towns in the country's south are abuzz with stories of Hezbollah fighters getting ready for a new war. Some Lebanese are renting second apartments in neighborhoods far from possible areas of conflict. Barbers offer up chatter to their customers about when and where trouble might start.

Saudi Arabia, France and the United States in recent weeks have issued warnings to their citizens in Lebanon or scaled back some embassy operations, citing security. Applications for Lebanese passports have increased 30 percent in recent weeks, according to local media reports.

"I don't know where I would go -- I have nephews in different countries. If the war breaks out, I will go to them," Khadija Hamadeh, a 47-year-old Lebanese woman, said at a passport office in the southern district of Beirut. Hamadeh clutched a paper ticket, waiting for the number on it -- 97 -- to be called for her first-ever passport application.

"I'm tired," she said. "And I really couldn't stand another war."

This week, followers of a senior Hezbollah figure, Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in a bombing in Syria's capital, Damascus, will end the traditional 40 days of mourning.

Hezbollah blamed Israel for Mughniyah's killing and pledged "open war" to avenge him. Israel has placed its armed forces on high alert.

Because of the ambiguous outcome of Israel's 2006 battle with Hezbollah, many regional analysts say Israel's response in any renewed fighting would reach beyond Hezbollah's southern stronghold and hit targets all over Lebanon, and in Syria, which supports the movement.

"This is a very risky time, and people's worries, unfortunately, are justified," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Lebanon has been in internal political crisis since the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of a former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri.

The country has been without a president since November, owing to rivalries between the U.S.-allied government and the Syrian-backed opposition, led by Hezbollah.

U.S. officials accuse Syria of prolonging Lebanon's political stalemate in part to try to stave off an international tribunal in Hariri's bombing death. Opposition leaders, in turn, accuse the United States of wanting the deadlock to continue to prevent a less sympathetic figure from becoming president.

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and the United States have pushed other governments in the region to isolate Syria as punishment for Lebanon's continuing political crisis. Hariri was a close friend of the Saudi royal family, which granted him Saudi citizenship.

When President Bush toured the Middle East in January, Saudi King Abdullah won U.S. agreement to dispatch the USS Cole and two other ships to the Lebanese coast. Senior Pentagon and State Department officials said the Cole will stay just off the coast, except for brief missions elsewhere, until Lebanon elects a president.

Abdullah, once considered Syria's closest ally among the Saudis, dispatched Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in February to Washington, Paris, London, Berlin and Moscow to ask for a united stand on Lebanon and continued pressure against Syria, said U.S. and Saudi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Saudi intelligence chief, meanwhile, went to Beijing and Persian Gulf countries to seek cooperation, the officials said. The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and even Russia -- an ally and arms supplier to Syria -- all have informed Syria that the world holds it responsible for ending Lebanon's internal crisis, officials said.

Saudi Arabia has also organized a high-level boycott of a March 29-30 Arab League summit in Damascus. Abdullah and several other Arab kings and presidents are slated to send foreign ministers and other representatives to the summit, rather than attend themselves. Iran, Syria's ally, said this week that it, too, would send only its foreign minister.

Abdullah sent his foreign minister to Syria last month to warn of the summit boycott and urge Syria to avert it by using its influence in Lebanon to ease the crisis there. Syrian officials indicated that they might help, officials said -- but only if the international tribunal was reined in. Its investigators want to question senior Syrian officials in Hariri's killing.

The tribunal tentatively is scheduled to begin proceedings this summer. The United States has increased its financial pledge for the court from $7 million to $14 million.

Syria last week formally invited the Lebanese government to attend the summit, a conciliatory gesture that eased feelings slightly. But many analysts see strong tensions continuing. The polarization is now "extreme," said Ahmed Youssef, director of the Institute for Arab Research and Studies, a Cairo-based center affiliated with the Arab League. "I don't have the impression any of these actors in Lebanon are willing to end action until their interests" in the country are addressed.

On the Corniche, Beirut's famous waterfront road, 69-year-old retiree Samir Eid stared out at the Mediterranean last week. Eid's son was due to leave Lebanon in a few days, following the lead of Eid's three other children, who found it impossible to make a living in Lebanon's conflict-blighted economy. But Eid looked dreamy, and pleased.

"We really have no choice -- what can we do?" Eid asked. "We wait, we live day by day, we try to steal some moments of peace, like now. Today is perfect, but what tomorrow brings could be a living hell."

Wright reported from Washington and Knickmeyer from Cairo. Correspondents Anthony Shadid in southern Lebanon and Faiza Saleh Ambah in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.

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