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.
"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.
"It's subversion on a massive scale, including threats and assassinations," a Western diplomat in Beirut said of the role of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon. "We've arrived at some uncertainty politically, and we are seeing them resort to tactics like this one."
The political formula has provided enough peace to allow the private sector to rebuild the country, spearheaded in large measure by the billionaire prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. His company has managed the multibillion-dollar reconstruction of downtown Beirut, the centerpiece of a thriving tourism industry.
But the sectarian political system mostly benefits its participants, and parties that emerged from disarmed militias are largely channels for patronage. Lebanon's countryside has received far less reconstruction aid than urban areas. The economy, while predicted to grow by 5 percent this year, is tilted heavily toward construction and tourism, leaving agriculture and industry with little help.
Corruption and inefficiency also have delayed scheduled privatizations of state industry, including that of the dilapidated power company. In recent weeks, Beirut has been without electricity for hours each day.
"What we are seeing now is the inability of the Lebanese political system to form an effective government to manage the country's affairs," another Western diplomat in Beirut said.
Reform plans have languished during the weeks-long standoff between Hariri, a Sunni, and Lahoud, the former head of the Lebanese army who draws much of his support from the armed services. Their animosity has deepened since Lahoud's term extension, which Hariri opposed until he was summoned to Damascus in late August.
"We are facing so many internal problems related to the financial situation of the government, not with the private sector," Hariri said in an interview at his palatial home last week. He declined to discuss his meeting with Assad but suggested that the relationships that have developed between Lebanese and Syrian officials would make removing Syria from national politics difficult.
"We're part of the problem -- don't forget that," he said. "This is a fragile democracy, and it needs to be strengthened."
Days after her brother was killed in the attack on Hamadi, Wafaa Abou Karoum sat clutching a tissue in a long row of women seated along one wall of the community center in the village of Mazaraat al-Chouf. Across from them sat a grim-faced line of village men, all of them observing a week-long mourning period for the town's slain son, Ghazi Abou Karoum. Thousands of people from various religions had filled the streets for Abou Karoum's funeral. Jumblatt was among them.
Wafaa Abou Karoum, weeping intermittently, appeared torn between reconciliation and anger as she talked about her brother's sudden death. "It is the leaders and big politicians who are trying to put obstacles between the different sects," she said. "If they would just leave the normal people to themselves, we would live happily."
In her next breath, she had a warning. "No one should try to come near Walid Jumblatt -- he is a mountain of fire," she said. "Let them stop trying to burn our hearts. We can't take that."