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September 9, 2006 3:00 am
On the morning of July 12, hours after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, officials from the Shia militant group came to the Beirut office of Fouad Siniora, prime minister, to tell him not to worry - Israel's response would be mild.
Mr Siniora reminded them of the harsh retaliation to an earlier capture of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip. The Hizbollah officials said Lebanon was not Gaza.
"You misread the situation," said Mr Siniora, according to an official familiar with the meeting. "They'll destroy us."
Israel began to pound Lebanon day and night.Mr Siniora's prediction had become Lebanon's frightening reality. A career banker accidentally thrust last year into the top job after the killing of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the man he had long served as finance minister, the 63-year-old Mr Siniora was trapped.
He was under attack by Israel. The US refused to call for an early ceasefire. Facing an imposed war, the government had no control over Hizbollah, and its ability to influence it was further constrained by tense relations with Syria and Iran, Hizbollah's two backers.
Tearful at times but resolute at others, Mr Siniora worked with Nabih Berri, the powerful Shia speaker of parliament and mediator with Hizbollah, to steer Lebanon through the 34-day crisis. He focused on averting sectarian conflict and keeping a fractious government (in which Hizbollah is a minority partner) together.
He balanced all concerned parties' demands but managed to win concessions, not least Hizbollah's consent to the deployment of the Lebanese army and an expanded UN peacekeeping force near the border with Israel, where the militant group had been the sole power.
The work was hard, but managing the postwar period could prove more daunting.
After projecting a common front during the war, Lebanon has emerged politically divided, socially polarised and with an economy in tatters.
Economists put the total cost of direct and indirect damage to the economy at at least $9bn (£4.8bn, €7bn), or nearly half the country's GDP. The biggest blow, they say, is the loss of confidence in an economy with $39bn in debt and a reliance on investment and tourism flows from the Arab world. Some companies are already announcing lay-offs. Others say they may not be able to pay back their bank loans.
Hizbollah, difficult to rein in before the war, now appears more defiant. The group and its allies, including the Christian leader General Michel Aoun, started calling for a change of government as soon as the fighting stopped.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah chief, has said the postwar challenges require a government of national unity that brings in a key Christian element like the Aoun movement.
For Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze minority and a Hizbollah opponent, however, these calls amount to a "political takeover" in the aftermath of what he considered to have been a "military coup" by Hizbollah on July 12. He fears the group will link the handover of two Israeli soldiers to the Lebanese government, as demanded by Israel, to its calls for a new government.
Meanwhile, Hizbollah's rush to mollify a Shia community devastated by the conflict with the efficient handout of cash and reconstruction assistance has exposed the government's tardiness. The pro-western Sunni and Christian parliamentary majority that backs Mr Siniora has appeared paralysed and his fractious cabinet unco-ordinated.
Though furious at Hizbollah for sparking the war, the Sunni bloc that leads the majority has avoided open criticism of the group to avoid provoking Shia-Sunni tensions.
Perhaps most disturbing for the government is that Hizbollah's claimed victory against Israeli troops has emboldened Syria. The alleged role of Damascus in the Hariri assassination is under investigation by a UN commission. Syria denies any involvement.
Since Mr Nasrallah declared that he would not have ordered the July 12 attack had he known what its devastating impact would be, some Shia voices have expressed rare dissatisfaction with the group. And the parliamentary majority says that with time and help from the world community Hizbollah's power could be curbed.
"Their rockets were not a deterrent for Israeli bombings and their weapons now cannot be used because their own community has seen the result," says Samir Franjie, an MP from the parliamentary majority.
But there are no restrictions on Hizbollah outside the 20km buffer zone created by the UN ceasefire. And, as Timor Goksel, a former Unifil official who now teaches at the American University of Beirut, says, "they [Hizbollah] are adaptable and there is a very lucrative arms market where they can buy weapons and the delivery is guaranteed".
But Mr Siniora, whose popularity has been rising, is pressing ahead. He insists there will be no change of government. He is emphasising the need for a resolution of the Shebaa farms dispute, the small occupied border land that Hizbollah says should be liberated before the fate of its armed wing is decided. He has also tried to seize back the reconstruction initiative from Hizbollah, announcing compensation for destroyed homes and winning international commitments for $940m in early recovery aid.
Aides say Mr Siniora remains characteristically optimistic.
"The government is working on enlarging the room of manoeuvre it has on the basis of consensus with all Lebanese," says an official. "There are a lot of obstacles and doubts that it will work. But what is the alternative?"
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