Beirut on fire

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The stand-off in Beirut between the shaky, western-backed government and an opposition spearheaded by Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist group backed by Iran, has taken an alarming turn. Lebanon may finally be committing suicide as a nation.

Hizbollah overran west Beirut on Friday in a devastating show of force that left the Sunni-led coalition of Fuad Siniora reeling.

There seem to be no limits to the depths into which Lebanon’s politicians can dig a country they treat as booty or an arena for proxy war. Their struggle for power is now fatally tied to the visceral contest between Sunni and Shia Muslims that was uncorked across the region by the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Lebanon, it is true, never really resolved the infinitely sub-plotted conflict between its 17 sects that plunged the country into the 1975-90 civil war and left it under Syrian and Israeli occupation. Rafiq Hariri, the late prime minister, reconstructed Beirut but failed to remould Lebanon’s confessional politics into a national project.

His 2005 assassination, almost certainly by Syria and its local agents, led to the departure of Syrian troops but triggered a bitter struggle for power. The rise of the majority Shia in Iraq – horrifying Sunni Arab leaders who see them as Shia Iran’s proxies – and Israel’s failed war against Hizbollah in 2006, have raised the stakes in Lebanon. Once more it is hostage to regional powers and their local clients.

Hizbollah, its prestige enhanced after it stood its ground against Israel’s 2006 onslaught, laid siege to Mr Siniora’s government and Lebanon’s institutions. Parliament has not met for 18 months; there has been no president for six months.

Mr Siniora is a technocrat and Saad Hariri, his main supporter in parliament, is a novice thrust into politics by the murder of his father. It shows. Fighting flared after the government said it would close Hizbollah’s secure telephone network – central to its military infrastructure – and fired the Shia officer in charge of security at Beirut airport.

With the army reluctant to risk repeating its civil war split on sectarian lines, Mr Siniora has no means to carry out this threat. Hizbollah is certainly a state-within-the-state – the latest of many in Lebanon’s history. But the government overplayed a weak hand.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s charismatic chief, called the move a declaration of war. Hizbollah and Iran have lost faith in their Syrian ally (and arms conduit) after the murder in Damascus of a top commander. The group will not give up its logistics or access to the airport.

The government will probably have to back down. That will only postpone the problem of who rules Lebanon: and may suck in regional players like Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shia Iran and, once more, Israel. Lebanon’s history is all about postponing problems – one reason it risks its future as a nation.

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